It's not about a "slave mentality"
Shortly after their liberation from Egypt, the Children of Israel run into trouble. It starts immediately after they cross the Red Sea. They kvetch. What can we drink? You call this food? That's it, we're turning back to Egypt! At least there we got free food!
Contemporary rabbis with pop-psychology training (like most RIETS musmachim with their psych degrees) like to chalk this up to a residual "slave mentality" (see these, for example). You can take the Jews out of Egypt, but with a lifetime of slavery behind them they have no experience in taking responsibility for their lives and livelihoods. Ultimately, the generation of slaves must die to make way for a new one, raised as citizens of a free people, capable of fending for themselves in a new land.
Though there is some truth to this explanation, it doesn't satisfy me. Imagine the Israelites had never been slaves, but rather had voluntarily followed their leaders into the desert to make a new start as a nation. Had they then been confronted with a shortage of food and drink, would we not expect them to complain? Would they have been wrong to expect their leaders to have anticipated such circumstances? Would they have been wrong to turn to their leaders to solve the problem they themselves had led them into? Would they have been wrong to fear they had been poorly led and to reconsider their course?
Ah, you say, what's significant is not the complaining, but the willingness to return to lives of slavery in Egypt rather than suffer in the desert. But is this so shocking? How many people would prefer to die of thirst and starvation rather than subject themselves to enslavement?
Likewise, one might take them to task for a lack of faith in God to save them, especially after all the miracles they had witnessed until then. Yet how many of us would pass the same test?
A fundamental political truth
No, their behavior was fully to be expected. A fundamental political truth was at work: Given the choice, most people, most of the time, prefer security to liberty. They prefer comfort and stability, even at the expense of serfdom. New Hampshire notwithstanding, few of us are willing to "Live Free or Die".
Yet, this is precisely what was demanded of them on leaving Egypt. Arguably, the first principle of the Torah is its opposition to slavery. Our national story starts with the liberation from Egypt. We are enjoined to worship God alone, and to reject the legitimacy of any other power over us, human or otherwise. We are all equally created in God's image, and He alone is to be our master.
The civil laws governing Torah society are structured to establish individual liberty and the decentralization of power - the direct opposite of Pharaonic Egypt. The Torah regulates slavery to the point that it becomes more a state of temporary indentured servitude. All citizens are granted property, and, by implication, a degree of economic independence, in the form of a permanent plot of land. No authority is above the law of the Torah, not even the priests or the king. Rather than institute a system of public welfare, individuals are all enjoined to support the poor and disadvantaged themselves.
The authority of the family
Perhaps most important, the source of legitimacy for authority is not the state or the prophet, but the family. This is most evident on Passover night, when the nation's founding story is told in the context of a family dinner. It is the father's job to impart the tradition to his sons. Responsibility for education is his, not the state's or the priesthood's. Each family has its own, equally legitimate, chain of tradition tracing back to the Exodus from Egypt. No one can claim greater authority, greater authenticity of his connection to God, than anyone else.
This contrasts with Egypt, indeed with every tyrannical society in history. The first priority of an ideological society, be it Plato's Republic, communist Europe, Nazi Germany, or kibbutz Israel, is to destroy the family. The family is a threat, an alternative source of power to the collective. Collective societies sanctify the central regime, which controls everything from sustenance to - perhaps most importantly - education. The Torah does the reverse, granting each family an independent source of sustenance and sanctifying the respect and honor for one's father and mother, the source of education.
Furthermore, the only citizens without economic independence, whose sustenance is deliberately dependent on the gracious support of their fellow citizens, are those of the priestly class. The Levites have no territory of their own; they are scattered throughout society and are supported by charity. Far from holding power over their compatriots, they are dependent on them, serving them and God. Their power is moral and intellectual, not economic. And never until the Hasmonean dynasty do the priests capture political power.
Balance of power
Such a society, with political liberty, economic independence, and democratic dispersion of authority, may be far less secure than a centralized regime such Egypt with a powerful cradle-to-grave bureacracy. At times it will be too weak even to defend itself from external attack. It will be prone to internal instability and constant dissension. But only in such a system is the average citizen fully responsible for his economic welfare and that of his family and neighbors. Only thus can he be free of oppression by his fellow man. Only thus can he worship God freely, can he fully realize the individual potential given him by God.
Every society, every form of government, entails a balance between liberty and security. The Torah firmly shifts that balance in favor of liberty, calling on individuals to take responsibility to live in freedom, while trusting in God for their security. Organizing a society in accordance with such principles is a constant challenge, but it is a clear corollary to the Passover story.
Note: I've posted the solution to last week's Passover riddle - see the comments.