We are still leaving Egypt.
There was a time when we lived at the whim of tyrants; when we worked without a break and only rested so we could work more; when we owned nothing but debts.
There was a time when we lived in mitzrayim. Today, we translate that word as ‘Egypt,’ fixing it to a specific time and place.
Our Torah does not permit us to read the story as if from a history textbook. Which Egypt were we living in? What were its borders? In which century did it take place? Who was the Pharaoh?
In Torah, all Pharaohs are simply called Pharaoh. To the migrant labourers and the chattel slaves of the ancient world, it made no difference whether the emperor was Ramses, Amenhotep or Cleopatra. As far as their lives were concerned, each century was broadly the same.
We want to imagine that this place is miles away from here and centuries apart from now. We want to draw a line to divide ourselves from the past.
The word for Egypt – mitzrayim – means ‘narrow, oppressive straits.’ It means places of anguish and control. That place does not have fixed borders between Sudan and the Mediterranean sea. It is a place we have all inhabited. It is a place we all still inhabit.
At Pesach, we are commanded to tell the story of the Exodus as if we ourselves had lived it. The haggadah instructs us to recall the events as if they are part of our collective experience.
It is not just so that we can remember the bitterness of slavery in the taste of maror, or the tears of persecution in our salt water. This is far more than bringing a story to life.
It is so that we will understand that Egypt was not simply one place and time. It is any place and time in which people are not free. And because it is any place and time, it is every place and time.
We must understand that we really were slaves in Egypt. We must believe, deep within the sinews of our bodies, that we are still there.
Because if we can remember how we were oppressed, we will remember that we were able to free ourselves.
We will feel the strength and joy that comes from rising up and leaving constricting spaces. It is so that we will feel empowered to do it again. We must still leave Egypt.
The seder is a process of embodied retelling to help us understand that message.
Yes, in the first half of the seder, we read that we were slaves in the land of Egypt. But, in the second, we invoke Messianic redemption.
When our plates are cleared and the afikoman has been retrieved and the dinner is done, we turn back to our haggadahs and complete our seder.
We pour out a fifth glass of wine, open the door, and implore the prophet Elijah to return and finally bring us to freedom. We acknowledge that the struggle is not yet complete. We still have to leave the Egypts of our era.
As the seder concludes, we lift our glasses and promise: “next year in Jerusalem!”
Please do not mistake this toast for a tourism brochure. We are not praying for cheap easyJet tickets to Tel Aviv. The Jerusalem we hope to reach next year is miles away from the one in Israel today.
Our fellow Reform Jews in Israel are still very much in exile, and crying out to leave their own narrow straits. If the Jerusalem in the contemporary Levant were the one we were reaching for, Judaism would be over. History would be complete, and so would the sacred purpose of the Jews.
If that were Jerusalem, the ultimate Jerusalem, we would have to say that we are satisfied with segregation, militarism, and fanaticism.
But we are not.
We are not in Jerusalem until the whole world knows unending freedom. Until there is no more oppression, we are all in Egypt.
We British Jews are still in Egypt too. We have made many advancements. We are citizens in our country with full civic rights. When this was granted to European Jews, many felt it was so miraculous that they considered the exile to be over.
Moses Mendelssohn, the founder of the Jewish Enlightenment, proposed that the social and moral progress encapsulated by Jewish emancipation would bring about a new society. A utopia of tolerance and conclusion based on the values Judaism had imparted to humanity. What would such a place be called? Jerusalem.
He titled his book as such, anticipating that, when we reached such an age, Berlin would be Zion.
For all our greatest aspirations, Europe has not become the Promised Land. Not yet. Nor is Israel. Not yet.
If we limit ourselves to imagining emancipation as a geographical phenomenon, we will keep chasing after new countries, hoping they will be our final destination, only to find that, in every location, we remain in exile.
That is because exile is not simply a place. It is a state of being isolated from the true and complete justice of God.
That promised land is yet to be found.
As long as there is progress to be made, we will keep journeying.
As long as there are slopes to freedom, we will continue to climb that mountain.
Until the day when we are all free, every year, we will pray that, next year, we will live in a world redeemed.
Now, we are still leaving Egypt.
Next year in Jerusalem.