Jews have a daily duty to recall the Exodus.
It’s the first thing God says at Sinai; introducing Himself as the God who took us out of Egypt. Remembering the Exodus is a perpetual mitzvah, and is ever-present in our daily prayers and blessings – זֵכֶר לִיצִיאַת מִצְרָיִם. It is so ubiquitous to so many mitzvos and prayers, 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 permeate the systems built upon them. It’s not the historical event 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 didn’t deserve to be saved because they were so good or so special; in fact, quite the opposite.
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!
When even Moshe, already well on his way to greatness, saw Yisro’s daughters getting bullied and got involved in the dispute to protect them, the onlookers mistook him for just another Egyptian!
The Midrash famously states that the enslaved Jews retained their names, clothing, and language. This is frequently misunderstood as a point of pride, but it seems that they were otherwise indistinguishable from Egyptians in every other way apart from these narrow and limited practices.
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 particular 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 rescuing 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 – אָנֹכִי ה’ אֱלֹהֶיךָ אֲשֶׁר הוֹצֵאתִיךָ מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם מִבֵּית עֲבָדִים. It’s not a command – it is just 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; 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.
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.