The Seder is replete with strange customs and rituals to encourage questions that we answer with stories.

But why don’t we just tell the story?

R’ Tzadok haKohen explains that the year-round mitzvah of remembering our history is not enough on Seder night. The goal is of the Seder is not simple history communication and knowledge acquisition; the goal is engagement, and the vehicle for engagement is questions – וַאֲפִילוּ כֻּלָּנוּ חֲכָמִים כֻּלָּנוּ נְבוֹנִים כֻּלָּנוּ זְקֵנִים כֻּלָּנוּ יוֹדְעִים אֶת הַתּוֹרָה מִצְוָה עָלֵינוּ לְסַפֵּר בִּיצִיאַת מִצְרָיִם.

R’ Shamshon Raphael Hirsch explains that the Hebrew words for inheritance – נַחֲלָה / יְרוּשָׁה – have two very different meanings. The root נחל means a river that naturally flows, and the root רשת is the word for conquest or capture.

R’ Jonathan Sacks teaches the obvious truth that our tradition will not flow like a river – we cannot make the grave error of assuming our children will just follow their heritage. Tradition is secured through conquest because something you put energy into is earned. Questions are central to the Seder, because questions are the vehicle to transmit memory and identity. By asking questions, the children make what is ours into theirs too.

When the wise son asks what the point of it all is, we answer that we don’t eat anything after the Korban Pesach; which Rav Kook allegorizes to mean that the taste of our traditions should linger.

We all grew up sharing a table with extended families, and we don’t just tell stories. We taste the strange foods, the matzah, maror, and charoses, talking about what it means to be free, singing songs to celebrate all our blessings. Everyone remembers being the one to ask the four questions and stealing the afikoman. And as we grow up, we become the one to answer the questions, and it’s our afikoman getting stolen. The Seder’s enduring power is its way of transmitting our memory and identity across generations.

That’s the power of ritual, simple things we do as children because it’s fun, and as adults, because we know that our identity is one of the most precious things we can pass on.

We can’t just tell stories at the Seder because it would miss the point entirely. The Seder rituals are the things we do together as an expression of collective memory and shared ideals. Accordingly, it should be no surprise that more people go to a Seder than to shul on Yom Kippur.

We begin the redemption story of the Seder by talking about the Matza as the bread of affliction that our ancestors before us ate, and we invite whoever is hungry to join us; concluding that while we may be in exile now, next year we will be free.

If you think about it for just a moment, it’s a strange invitation.

It is one thing to invite someone to a steak dinner; what sort of invitation is it to share in my bread of affliction?

R’ Jonathan Sacks teaches that what transforms the bread of affliction into the bread of freedom is the willingness to share with others.

The Maharal notes that the reason the Exodus is so fundamental is that it associates Judaism with an essential quality of intrinsic freedom to act as we choose with no external coercive influence.

Freedom is oxygen for the soul, and mental freedom cannot be taken away.

Rav Kook explains that the difference between a slave and a free man is not solely defined by socio-economic standing. There can be an enlightened slave whose spirit is free and a free man with the mentality of a slave, whose whole life is lived on other people’s terms.

The Lubavitcher Rebbe taught that Elazar ben Azariah discovered Ben Zoma’s teaching to recall the Exodus at nights on the day he came to power; because it is a leader’s duty to be a beacon of hope during times of darkness and difficulty.

The Jews of that time were physically freed from slavery, but mentally, they never left. They stood at the Red Sea and Sinai, yet spent 40 lost years pining to go back “home” to Egypt.

God can save you from Egypt, but not even God can save you from yourself.

At any moment, just by sharing with others, we can become partners in redemption.

Jews have a daily duty to recall the Exodus.

The theme of the Exodus is ever present in various daily prayers and blessings; it seems like everything we do is another זֵכֶר לִיצִיאַת מִצְרָיִם. It is so pervasive to so many commands and rituals, to the extent that we could almost miss the point entirely.

It is important to understand first principles because they are the foundational concepts that pervade the systems built upon them. So what do we mean when we say that we remember that God took the Jews out of Egypt?

Simply put, it’s not the history of the that we have to recall; it’s that every single last one of us is worthy of God’s unconditional love.

If we unpack the story, the Jews in Egypt weren’t saved because they were so good or so special, but quite the opposite.

The Zohar imagines the angels arguing whether or not God should save the Jews, and the argument against intervention was that “these are idol-worshippers, and so are these!”

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.

When even Moshe, already well on his way to Jewish leadership, saw Yisro’s daughters getting bullied and got involved in the fracas to protect them, the onlookers mistook him for just another Egyptian!

Moreover, the generation that left Egypt and stood at Sinai fought Moshe the rest of their lives, begging to go back 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 certain dimension to the imagery of God’s 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.

That is to say that on a fundamental level, the Jews didn’t deserve to be rescued at all.

And yet crucially, as R’ Chaim Kanievsky notes, God responded to their cries all the same – וַנִּצְעַק אֶל־ה’ אֱלֹהֵי 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 – אָֽנֹכִ֖י֙ ה אֱלֹהֶ֑֔יךָ אֲשֶׁ֧ר הוֹצֵאתִ֛יךָ מֵאֶ֥רֶץ מִצְרַ֖יִם מִבֵּ֣֥ית עֲבָדִֽ֑ים. We might not deserve redemption, yet God redeems us all the same. It’s not a command – it is something that simply just is, whoever and wherever we are.

R’ Tzadok haKohen writes that to remember Egypt is to remember God’s first declarative sentence; our God rescues people from Egypt, whoever they are.

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.

As the Lubavitcher Rebbe put it, God’s redemption is not contingent on our worthiness.

That’s our daily duty. To remind yourself that the first principle of Judaism from which everything follows is that you are worthy.

One of the most beautiful and innovative themes in the Torah is the concept of teshuva – return and repentance. Everything broken and lost can be found, fixed, and restored.

Whatever mistakes we have made, we believe that Hashem loves us and will accept us the moment we make up our minds:

וְשָׁב ה אֱלֹהֶיךָ אֶתשְׁבוּתְךָ, וְרִחֲמֶךָ; וְשָׁב, וְקִבֶּצְךָ מִכָּלהָעַמִּים, אֲשֶׁר הֱפִיצְךָ ה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, שָׁמָּה. אִםיִהְיֶה נִדַּחֲךָ, בִּקְצֵה הַשָּׁמָיִםמִשָּׁם יְקַבֶּצְךָ ה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, וּמִשָּׁם יִקָּחֶךָ – God will return your captives and have compassion for you; and will return and gather you from all the nations, wherever God has scattered you. Even if you are displaced to the edge of the heavens; that’s where God will gather you from – He will fetch you from there. (30:3,4)

R’ Chaim Brown notes that Hashem promises to find us twice – וְקִבֶּצְךָ / יְקַבֶּצְךָ.

What does the repetition add?

Rav Kook teaches that the first promise is about a physical return to Israel, and the second promise is that God will also return us from the outer edge of the spiritual universe – קְצֵה הַשָּׁמָיִם.

The Sfas Emes teaches that Hashem makes this promise regardless of whatever it is that brought us there to that spiritual wilderness – whether it’s upbringing; bad choices; poor self-control – none of it matters – מִשָּׁם יְקַבֶּצְךָ / וּמִשָּׁם יִקָּחֶךָ.

An astounding number of people today believe they are irredeemable and have done terrible things. But if you’re not an adulterous, idol worshipping murderer, the odds are that you can make amends pretty easily. And even if you are, Hashem doesn’t give up on us!

So forgive yourself for yesterday; make amends today; all for a better tomorrow.