How is the average person, even the not-so-average person, supposed to gain access to an intuitive knowledge of God? Our tradition gives us two avenues encapsulated in the words of Friday night kiddush, which tells us that Shabbat is a zicharon lemaaseh bereshit and apparently also zecher leyitziat Mitzrayim. Here the Jew is being told to see God in nature through ma’aseh bereshit and in history most pointedly through yitziat Mitzrayim.
While the first thirty years of the State of Israel allowed many to see God in history once again, the more recent past has made it somewhat more difficult. Yet it is still certainly easier to identify His presence in history today than for most of the last two thousand years.
In contrast, Shabbat always takes us back to the same universal God of creation, a creation that is appreciable in every breath we take (as is mentioned by the rabbis in Bereishit Rabbah 14:9). The complexity of what is required, both in our bodies and in the atmosphere, to allow us to breathe, is something that has the potential to inspire awe regardless of what else is going on around us. The complexity and order inherent in nature brings us closer to God as does its beauty.
Sometimes nature and history even come together: After the Jews crossed the Reed Sea and sang shira - proclaiming zeh E-li (this is my God) - they entered into a different level of intuitive knowledge, no longer approximating prophecy, but rather surpassing it. Hence the famous rabbinic statement that even the lowest person at the crossing of the Reed Sea saw more than Yechezkel ben Buzi. The Jews who crossed the Reed Sea did not have prophecy and yet they saw more than one of the most clairvoyant prophets of our tradition.The rabbis suggest that whenever the term zeh is used, it refers to something to which someone is pointing. So too, at the Reed Sea, it is understood that the Jews were pointing to God. God’s presence was so clear to the Jews, that he was as perceivable as – and perhaps even more than – any physical object to which they could have pointed. At the Reed Sea, the Jews were privy to God’s presence both in history and nature at the same time.
This is something quite distant from our own experience. But it is something we can still tap into when we take advantage of the requirement to remember what happened so long ago. Though we are bidden to remember yitziat Mitzrayim on a daily basis, it only comes to a crescendo on Pesach. When Pesach becomes a reenactment of the Jews’ experience of coming out of Egypt, we feel a proximity to God like no other. It is for this reason that we do something that one does not find anywhere else in the Jewish calendar; we sing God’s praises (Hallel) at night. Since nighttime is a time of physical darkness, when light and colors disappear from the world outside, we normally save Hallel for the daytime, when we are more likely to have clear intuitive knowledge of God.
At the seder table, we take great pains not to just commemorate but to re-experience. When we do so, we no longer find ourselves aware of the night outside – we are only aware of God, both in history and in nature. At that time we can do nothing else but point to God and sing shira.