The Exodus is an orienting event for the Jewish People, a founding moment in our history, with a daily duty to recall it. It’s the first thing God has to say to humans at Sinai; God introduces Himself as the God who took us out of Egypt.
Remembering the Exodus is a perpetual mitzvah, and an astounding amount of our daily blessings, mitzvos, and prayers commemorate the Exodus – זֵכֶר לִיצִיאַת מִצְרָיִם. It is ubiquitous to the extent we could miss the point entirely.
What do we mean when we say that we remember that God took the Jews out of Egypt?
It is essential to understand first principles because they are the foundational concepts that govern the systems built upon them.
If we unpack the story, the Jews in Egypt didn’t deserve to be saved because they were so great or unique; they were quite the opposite. And that’s the point we need to remember.
The Zohar imagines the angels arguing whether or not God should save the Jews, and the argument was that “this lot are just a bunch of idol-worshippers, and so are those!” The Haggadah admits as much – מִתְּחִלָּה עוֹבְדֵי עֲבוֹדָה זָרָה הָיוּ אֲבוֹתֵינוּ.
When Moshe told the Jews to set aside and take one sheep per family, the Midrash says that “set aside” meant setting aside their idols before taking the sheep for the mitzvah!
Even when Moshe, already well on his way to greatness, intervened to protect Yisro’s daughters from bullies, onlookers mistook him for some random Egyptian!
The Midrash famously states that the enslaved Jews retained their names, clothing, and language. This is frequently – and mistakenly – framed as a point of pride when it seems the point is that apart from these narrow and limited practices, they were indistinguishable from Egyptians in every other conceivable way!
Moreover, the generation that left Egypt and stood at Sinai fought Moshe for the rest of their lives, begging to return to Egypt, and was ultimately doomed to wander and die in the wilderness.
The Zohar goes so far as to say that the Jews were on the 49th level of spiritual malaise, just one notch off rock bottom, the point of no return. Rav Kook notes that this adds a particular dimension to the imagery of God’s mighty and outstretched arm – it was a forceful intervention, an emergency rescue of a nation that had stumbled and was about fall off a cliff – בְּיָד חֲזָקָה וּבִזְרֹעַ נְטוּיָה.
As R’ Shlomo Farhi explains, whenever God is characterized with strength, it indicates God is doing something undeserved. God does not require more power to move a grape than a galaxy, but God can force compassion to overwhelm what justice requires – גּוֹאֵל וחָזָק אָתָּה.
That is to say that on a fundamental level, the Jews didn’t deserve rescuing at all.
And yet crucially, as R’ Chaim Kanievsky notes, God responded to their cries all the same – וַנִּצְעַק אֶל־ה’ אֱלֹקי אֲבֹתֵינוּ, וַיִּשְׁמַע ה’ אֶת־קֹלֵנוּ.
The Divrei Chaim notes that the very first Commandment is no command at all; God “introduces” himself as the God who took us out of Egypt – אָנֹכִי ה’ אֱלֹקיךָ אֲשֶׁר הוֹצֵאתִיךָ מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם מִבֵּית עֲבָדִים. It’s not a command but a simple statement of fact. We might not deserve redemption, yet God redeems us all the same.
R’ Tzadok haKohen writes that to remember Egypt is to remember God’s first declarative sentence; God rescues people from Egypt, whatever they have done and whoever they have become. Our God initiates the great Exodus before the Jewish People ever take a single step of their own to be better – אָנֹכִי ה’ אֱלֹקיךָ אֲשֶׁר הוֹצֵאתִיךָ מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם מִבֵּית עֲבָדִים.
The Ropshitzer quipped that תְּחִלָּה לְמִקְרָאֵי קדֶשׁ זֵכֶר לִיצִיאַת מִצְרָיִם – the first step towards holiness is remembering that the same Exodus that rescued people from the abyss once before could be just a moment away.
So when we remind ourselves about Egypt, it’s not just that it happened once, but that, as the Lubavitcher Rebbe put it, God’s redemption is not contingent on our worthiness. As the Kozhnitzer Maggid reminds us, the Creator chooses us at our worst – מִתְּחִלָּה עוֹבְדֵי עֲבוֹדָה זָרָה הָיוּ אֲבוֹתֵינוּ.
Take this lesson to heart; it’s one of the vanishingly few that the Torah specifically asks us to remember at all times – לְמַעַן תִּזְכֹּר אֶת־יוֹם צֵאתְךָ מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם כֹּל יְמֵי חַיֶּיךָ.
And it’s clear why.
You don’t need to remember the simple historical events of the Exodus; you must remind yourself that every single last human is worthy of God’s unconditional love.