The Passover Seder: Night of Grace

“I sleep, but my heart wakes: hark, my beloved is knocking, saying, Open to me, my sister, my love, my dove, my pure one: for my head is filled with dew, and my locks with the drops of the night.” – Song of Songs 5:2

There are certain times of year when God shows His/Her love for Israel. The Hasidic Master, Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev, believes that the greatest among these is Pesach (Passover). This is why Shir Hashirim, the Song of Songs, is read on Pesach: it is a symbol of the great emanation of love that pours forth upon the people of Israel on this night.

Once, a devotee asked Sri Ramakrishna, “By what kind of work can one realize God?”

Sri Ramakrishna replied: “It is not that God can be realized by this work and not by that. The vision of God depends on His grace.” [1]

According to the Kabbalah, the first night of Pesach night we receive the energy of hesed elyon – the supernal mercy or grace. This means that the revelation on Seder night is not a response to our actions or our merits; rather, it is a free flow of God’s mercy, an abundant outpouring of Divine grace.

The Hasidic Master, Shmuel of Sochatchov, teaches that this is the reason why the prayer for dew is recited on Pesach. Rain requires our prayers. As the Talmud Hulin 59B explains: even after the heavens and earth had been completed and everything was set in place, the skies still would not open up nor would the earth bring forth life until Adam came and prayed for rain. Dew on the other hand, comes without an arousal from below. It falls even when we do not merit it. Dew is pure grace.

If all is God’s grace, then what is our part in the Seder night? If the descent of dew is not dependent on our actions, then why is there a prayer for dew?

We pray for dew, Rebbe Shmuel tells us, because we do have a part to play in this process. Our task is to prepare the vessel to receive the Divine emanation. God’s grace may be flowing freely at this time, but it is up to us to be ready to receive it. It is up to us to have a vessel to contain it. And the size of the vessel that we prepare will determine the amount of grace that we can receive.

This is the higher meaning of the phrase in the Song of Songs 5:2:

“I sleep, but my heart wakes: hark, my beloved is knocking, saying, Open to me, my sister, my love, my dove, my pure one: for my head is filled with dew, and my locks with the drops of the night.”

God is knocking at our door on Seder night and His “Head” is filled with the dew of Divine blessing. He is calling out to us, urging us to open our hearts to receive His grace.

Before Pesach, we prepare to receive this gift of Grace through a two-step process:

The first step is to undertake the work of inner purification. This is symbolized by the weeks that we spend cleaning our home of all the chametz (leaven and leavened bread) in preparation for the holyday. We clear away all of the chametz from our hearts, all of the negativity and crookedness. We repair our vessel, making certain it has no holes, dirt or corrosion. We clean it inside and out; making sure that it is polished and smooth.

The second step in this process is self-surrender. Our self-surrender is symbolized by the act of bitul (nullifying) the chametz that we do on Erev Pesach. Before the ceremony of burning our chametz, we declare that any chametz that remains in our home is hefker – masterless. In the Hasidic tradition, chametz symbolizes the ego. Through our act of self-surrender, we are striving to annihilate the ego, the “master” of our chametz, thereby preparing the way for God’s grace to descend. As Paul Brunton explains:

“It [Divine Grace] descends and acts only when it is invoked by total self-surrender. It acts from within, because God resides in the Heart of all beings. Its whisper can be heard only in a mind purified by self-surrender and prayer.” [2]

This dual action of purification and self-surrender is the basis of our spiritual preparation for Seder night. Then, on Seder night itself, we take the process to the next stage whereby we draw God’s blessing down upon us. The manner in which we open the floodgates of Divine Grace is by telling the story of the Exodus.

The revelation that occurs on Seder night is not so much an individual revelation as a collective one. It is a flow of grace to the Jewish people. It is a renewal of God’s commitment to the people and the land of Israel.

Our telling of the story of the Exodus from Egypt is a manifestation of our faith that the redemption process is a living reality. It is an affirmation of our belief that God’s living presence is working in human history. It is a declaration of our conviction that good will overcome evil. It is a proclamation of our commitment to strive to be an instrument through which God can work in the world.

This is what it means when the Haggadah says, “In every generation a person must see himself as if he has come out of Egypt.” It is incumbent on each of us to relive the story of the Jewish people and see our lives as part of its journey.  This is why the Haggadah then exclaims: “Kol hamarbei lesaper beyetziat Mitsriym, harei ze meshubach”, “Whoever tells about the Exodus from Egypt at length is praiseworthy.” The more we put ourselves into the story of the Exodus, the more we become immersed in the experience of the Children of Israel in Egypt, the more powerful will be the influx of grace that we will receive.

This is the truth that is hidden behind the tale of Rabbi Eliezer, Rabbi Yoshua, Rabbi Elazar, son of Azaryah, Rabbi Akivah and Rabbi Tarfon, who stayed up all night talking about the Exodus until one of their students came and told them that it was time to recite the shema of the morning prayers. The five rabbis had become so immersed in the story and experience of the redemption from Egypt that they were lifted right out of time and place.

“Rebbe Elazar ben Azaryah said: I am like a man of seventy years, yet I was never able to convince my colleagues that one is obliged to mention the Exodus at night, until Ben Zoma explained it:

“It is stated in the Torah: ‘That you may remember the day when you came out of the land of Egypt, all the days of your life.” (Deut. 9:3) ‘The days of your life’ merely refers to the days; ‘all the days of your life,’ on the other hand, includes the nights too. – Brachot 27B

The effects of Divine Grace are manifold and multi-leveled. Part of the gift of grace that we receive on Pesach is that we emerge from Seder night realizing that everything comes from God; that all is part of His/Her grace. We now are able to understand that both the good and bad, both the days and the nights, all come from God. We see that both the exile and the redemption are intrinsic parts of God’s Plan.

When Swami Premananda, a direct disciple of Sri Ramkrishna, was suffering from a tropical fever that was slowly draining away his life, he asked his brother monk, Swami Turiyananda, to come visit him. Swami Premananda was so weak that he could not talk. As Swami Turiyananda sat on the edge of his bed, holding his beloved brother monk’s hand, Premananda repeated over and over again the words “Divine grace.” [3]

Grace not only provides us with an ability to see God in both the good and the bad, it also gives us the strength to endure all that we must go through in this life. This strength, Swami Shivananda of the Divine Life Society points out, is a unique gift that God bestows upon those he loves. Even as He puts them through constant trial and tribulation, God gives them an extraordinary power of endurance through his grace. [4]

The Sages say: ‘the days of your life’ indicates this life, but ‘all the days of your life’ includes the times of the Messiah too.’” – Brachot 27B

“Divine grace is a manifestation of the cosmic free will in operation. It can alter the course of events in a mysterious manner through its own unknown laws, which are superior to all natural laws, and can modify the latter by interaction. It is the most powerful force in the universe…

“It is a descent of God into the soul’s zone of awareness. It is a visitation of force unexpected and unpredictable. It is a voice spoken out of cosmic silence – It is ‘Cosmic Will which can perform authentic miracles under its own laws.’” – Paul Brunton [5]

The ultimate gift of the grace that we receive on Pesach is its enormous transforming power. On Seder night, we awaken to the knowledge that the energy of Divine grace can completely transform our lives in a moment. When the Divine Will descends into our hearts, God’s presence is revealed amid the darkness of this physical reality. This descent creates a powerful arousal of the spark of Divine Life within us. On Seder night, this spark is fanned into a glowing flame.

This is what it means to remember the Exodus of Egypt in the times of the Messiah: to awaken the power of the Divine Will, the spiritual force of Divine grace that overturned the natural order in the Exodus from Egypt, and harness it in our own lives today.

This messianic remembrance is enacted at the Seder in two ways:

The first is by pouring a cup for Elijah at our table and then opening the door to welcome him into our home. Elijah is the one who prepares the way for the Messiah to come. On Seder night, we open our hearts to receive a more expansive vision. We open our minds to a new way of thinking, a new way of looking at the world and at ourselves. We harness the Divine Will that makes anything possible. We tap into the Grace that can perform unexpected miracles in our lives.

The second way in which we evoke this messianic consciousness is the afikomen. The last thing that we eat on Seder night is a piece of the matzah which has been hidden earlier in the evening. This is the afikomen – an Aramaic word for dessert. According to the tradition, matzah is identified with the maan, the “bread” that fell with the dew every morning while the Children of Israel where in the desert. Maan is food from heaven, food that, like dew, is complete grace. We eat this final piece of matzah as an expression of our desire to keep the taste of the maan in our mouths throughout the whole of the year. On Seder night, we resolve to let go of all our selfish ambitions and desires, to cast aside all of our fears and doubts and hold on to the bread from heaven, hold on to the vision of the redemption – hold on to the outpouring of Divine grace.

The Seder is a night of grace. We receive abundant blessings on this night, blessings of vision, wisdom and inner strength. Seder night is an opportunity to connect with the experience of the Exodus, to become one with the Soul and mission of Israel. It is a moment when we can harness the messianic power of redemption and transform our lives.

 

Copyright © 2016, by Yoel Glick

Acknowledgements    (↵ returns to text)

  1. ‘M’, The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna, translated by Swami Nikhilananda, p. 646
  2. Quotation from Paul Brunton in the book, Divine Grace Through Total Self-Surrender, by D.C. Desai, quoted in Gems from Bhagavan, Devaraja Mudaliar, p.24
  3. Swami Ritajananda, Swami Turiyananda, p. 141
  4. Conversations on Yoga with Sincere Sadhaks and Swami Sivananda, Section XI: Garland of Yoga
  5. Quotation from Paul Brunton in the book, Divine Grace Through Total Self-Surrender, by D.C. Desai, quoted in Gems from Bhagavan, Devaraja Mudaliar, p. 24