The Exodus story is a foundation of Judaism and features prominently in most of our mitzvos and prayers.
Aware of the magnitude and scope of the Exodus, God tells Moshe and Ahron in real-time how consequential this story will always be:
וְהָיָה הַיּוֹם הַזֶּה לָכֶם לְזִכָּרוֹן וְחַגֹּתֶם אֹתוֹ חַג ה’ לְדֹרֹתֵיכֶם חֻקַּת עוֹלָם תְּחגֻּהוּ – “This day shall be to you one of remembrance; you shall celebrate it as a festival to God throughout the ages, you shall celebrate it as an institution for all time!” (12:14)
We practice this command in festive detail at the Seder, as the Haggadah recounts the captivating story of the Jewish people’s birth and liberation from Egypt and slavery.
But there’s a significant issue we ought to recognize immediately, without which the entire remembrance is irreparably compromised with no contemporary relevance at all.
We are fortunate to live in a vanishingly rare era of safety and prosperity, which only serves to obscure the fact that our people have been persecuted in one exile after another for most of our history. Even today, although largely safe from physical danger, the spiritual dangers have never been more powerful or seductive; most of our people are at different stages of assimilation or disorientation, desperately lacking clarity and direction.
What’s the point of talking about redemption that happened long ago when we’re not yet redeemed today?
The Meshech Chochmah explains that if it were nothing more than the anniversary of physical liberation, it truly would make little sense to celebrate in an era of subjugation. But if we understand it correctly as a spiritual liberation, then it continues to have a residual effect forever – וְחַגֹּתֶם אֹתוֹ חַג ה’ לְדֹרֹתֵיכֶם חֻקַּת עוֹלָם.
The Lubavitcher Rebbe explains that the Seder’s goal is not just to remember that an Exodus happened once; but that an Exodus could happen at all.
R’ Jonathan Sacks notes that Jews have celebrated this throughout the highs and lows of our history, in ghettos and concentration camps, under conditions similar to or worse than Egypt.
Even the Exodus itself was imperfect – it did not lead to a full and final utopian life in Israel. The freed slaves fought God and Moshe for the rest of their lives, yearning to go back to Egypt.
Remarkably, the Torah and Haggadah openly embrace the notion of an imperfect and partial redemption; both subvert our expectation of a happy ending resulting in the Jewish people living happily ever after in peace and prosperity in Israel, which suggests that the premise of the question is false.
However flawed that generation’s ability to embrace a new path might have been, they planted the seeds of redemption in the blueprint of our DNA. Humans are not robots, and we are all perfectly imperfect in our own way.
We don’t need to mark the anniversary of an ancient generation’s liberation long ago; we remember in order to celebrate what germinates from the seed planted by the Exodus – the innate ability to redeem ourselves.
Each of us in every generation must feel as though we experienced the great departure from Egypt, forever remembering that whatever troubles we face, the tools of redemption are already there, and salvation could be just a day away.
R’ Shai Held notes that the Haggadah seems to powerfully suggest that the journey is more important than the destination. The Gemara warns against believing someone who says they have searched for answers but found nothing. As R’ Louis Jacobs put it, the search for Torah is itself Torah, and in that search, we have already found; or as the Kotzker put it, the searching is the finding.
The question was accurate, that we’ve not yet made it all the way; but it’s vastly better than no way.
There is still quite some way to go, but you’re a long way from where you used to be, and that’s worth celebrating as well.