The mitzvoth of the seder night are varied, but the inner meaning and message is one: Freedom.
From Bondage to Freedom
The essence of the seder is about the journey from slavery to freedom. It was on that history-altering night that God bathed us in His great light, a light that forever lifted us to a completely new state of being: eternal freedom.
On the night of the seder, the heavens are open and Hashem unleashes an astounding shefa, a flow of heavenly influence that infuses and elevates our souls. Our job is to prepare—to prepare ourselves—to receive and contain that flow of profound spiritual influence. The mitzvot of the seder night are kaylim, customized spiritual vessels, that are designed to enable us to receive and integrate those rays of freedom bearing light. The mitzvot are spiritual passageways that enable the shefa to flow and transition from the highest spiritual realm, to our personal, earthly domain.
The mitzvot of the seder include two that originate in the Torah; the retelling of the story of the Exodus, and eating matzah, and three that were instituted by our sages; eating bitter herbs, drinking four cups of wine, and reclining. Each of these mitzvot are another way for us to achieve freedom. Each is particularly crafted to transmit a specific gradation of spiritual light—ohr—into specific aspects of komat ha’adam, our being.
The totality of a person is the body, together with the five dimensions of the soul; nefesh, ruach, neshama, chaya, and yechida. Each mitzvah of the seder corresponds to one of these dimensions. Let’s take a look—
Freedom for the body is expressed in the form of reclining like a free man. Reclining is a physical action meant to stir an inner feeling of freedom.
Wine brings a feeling of joy to the heart of man. When a person drinks wine they feel good, perhaps more relaxed and at ease, and that feeling is liberating. The four cups of wine liberate the nefesh from those inner battles that constrain and constrict it. They put one in touch with the feeling that ones inner potential can truly be unlocked to flow in a strong, positive direction.
Al pi sōd—according to the inner wisdom of Torah that reveals the beneath-the-surface workings of existence—the four cups, appearing throughout the seder, play a particularly central spiritual role. The holy Ari taught that the four cups prime the nefesh to receive the great ohr, the great light, of the seder night. The nefesh is a kli, a receptacle of light, and when the brilliant ohr of freedom shines on the soul, the nefesh must be ready and capable of receiving and containing that light. Indeed, there is nothing that better enables the receiving of the light than joy, than simcha. The four cups fashion a vibrant vessel of joy that, springtime-like, is ready to receive the bountiful light of freedom.
Our sages say, “A baby isn’t capable of expressing the difference between abba, father, and ima, mother, until it tastes the taste of wheat.”
Matzah and liberation of ruach and daat, thoughtful awareness, are interrelated. Matzah broadens our consciousness so that we can grasp and internalize the reality, and the meaning, of the great gilui Shechina—revelation of God’s presence—that was manifest with the exodus from Egypt. That remarkable burst of brilliant spiritual revelation takes place every Pesach, and it’s the eating of matzah that opens up a deep inner ability to absorb that elevated reality.
On the seder night, God freely bequeaths a most precious transformational gift; the gift of pure, strong emuna, belief and trust in God. Indeed, in the mystical texts matzah is nehama d’mihemnuta, the bread of emuna. This is the great wonder of mitzvot; that a physical item and action can touch the deepest regions of the soul and unleash the richest spiritual forces.
The mitzvah of maggid, of retelling the story of the exodus, operates at the level of neshama. With all the previous mitzvot, the individual is being impacted by the mitzvah. Here, with telling the story, the person takes on an active role where he is having an impact on others. This dynamic is a reflection of the potential within the neshama to radiate Godliness and sanctity into the world, to have an impact and to make a difference.
Indeed, the mouth is central to Pesach; both when it comes to the eating of the matza, as well as the telling of the story. When it comes to eating, the mouth is a recipient, and when it comes to sippur yitziat mitzratim—telling the story of the exodus from Egypt—the mouth is a proactive impactor. The Hebrew word Pesach can be divided into two words, peh, mouth, and sach, speaking. For the peh of Pe(h)sach to be effective and impactful, it needs to first receive the deep, enlightened spirit of insight and understanding transmitted by the matzah.
These are the deepest dimensions of the soul, the most hidden layers of our innermost being.
At the seder we eat maror, bitter herbs. Why? Why is this bitterness a critical component of freedom? The first reason is not simply that historically the bitterness of bondage preceded liberation, but that the bitterness is part of what liberates our inner freedom. If one is in a terrible situation but doesn’t feel and perceive it to be terrible, then there is no chance of getting out of it, of progressing to a better place. Feeling the bitterness is a sign that one is alive, aware and conscious of what’s lacking. To taste the bitterness of slavery is to long for the sweetness of freedom. In fact, feeling the bitterness means that to a great degree, one is already free. It means that there is within the person a core that refuses to reconcile with what it knows is simply unacceptable. The Torah tells us about the slave that has an opportunity for freedom but doesn’t want it, “I love my master …I won’t go free.” (Shmot 21:5) A slave that doesn’t taste the bitterness is a slave through and through, a slave forever.
The second reason for bitterness at the seder is that clearly slavery was, and is, an awful and depressing state of being, except on the night of the seder. The light that shines on the night of the seder is so penetrating that it reveals depths of reality that are almost beyong our ability to grasp. The enormity of the light of the seder night so thoroughly penetrates the darkness that it floods even the darkest places with light, and transforms what appears to be awful, into good. Through the lens of that brilliant, transformational light, we gain an understanding of how even the slavery into which God led us, was a necessary part of being able to achieve the exaltedness of ultimate freedom. From there we can gain an understanding that the long dark road of galut is actually, deep beneath the surface, the path to complete and total liberation, to zman cheyruteinu—to the season of our freedom—our ultimate freedom: To the geula shleima that will bring light to every dark corner of the world, every oppressive aspect of life.
The maror tells us that there is nothing that isn’t a reflection of God’s ultimate involvement and guidance. And this is chaya and yechida, the deepest lights, lights of love, that in reality are everywhere within us, and completely surround us.
This is a taste of the wonder of the mitzvot of Pesach, mitzvot that touch every dimension of our being and carry aloft the totality of our selves to complete, eternal freedom.
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Translated by Shimon Apisdorf