A “Great” Shabbat?

Every year on the Shabbat before Pesach, I give a Shabbat HaGadol drasha on (what I hope is) a compelling topic relating to the holiday of Pesach.  Over the last several years, we’ve studied the ‘four sons’ in depth, as well as other Mitzvot and customs of the Seder.  But often overlooked, in both my own speeches and others, is the status of this Shabbat itself – the “Great Shabbat”, Shabbat HaGadol.  Why, exactly, is this Shabbat so great?

Rabbi Yaakov ben Asher, in his classic Halachic work, the Tur, explains:

The Shabbat before Pesach is called Shabbat HaGadol, the Great Shabbat.  The reason for this is that on this Shabbat, a great miracle occurred.  On that first Pesach celebrated in Egypt, there was a special commandment to set aside a lamb for the Passover sacrifice on the tenth day of Nissan (four days before the sacrifice was actually brought), as the verse states: ‘In the tenth day of this month they shall take to them every man a lamb, according to their fathers’ houses, a lamb for a household.’  The people of Israel left Egypt on Thursday (the 15th of Nissan), and so the tenth day of Nissan fell on Shabbat.  On that Shabbat, each Israelite family took a lamb and tied it to the legs of their bed.  When the Egyptians asked them why they were doing this, the Israelites answered: ‘These lambs will be slaughtered as a Passover offering according to G-d’s command.’  Hearing this, the Egyptians ground their teeth (in anger), for the Israelites were planning to slaughter lambs, which they considered to be gods.  But the Egyptians were not able to protest.  Because of this great miracle (that the Egyptians could not stop the Israelites from sacrificing the lambs), this Shabbat (before Passover) is called ‘Shabbat HaGadol’, the Great Shabbat. (Tur, Orach Chaim 430)

It’s a fascinating story! The image of fuming Egyptians, utterly impotent and unable to prevent their former slaves from serving G-d, is compelling.  But at the same time, commentators throughout the generations have asked: what, really, was so uniquely great about this miracle?  Leading up to this moment, G-d had already brought nine miraculous plagues upon the Egyptian people – transforming water into blood, plunging the entire land into three days of utter darkness, and pelting the land of Egypt with fiery hail.  Weren’t these plagues far more miraculous than what occurred on the tenth day of Nissan, when the Egyptians could not prevent the Israelites from tying up their lambs?  Why is this minor miracle commemorated for all time with the name “Shabbat HaGadol”?  What was so ‘great’ about this moment?

Earning the Redemption

The Midrash teaches:  Why does the taking of the Pesach precede its slaughtering by four days? R. Matia ben Charash says… “There had arrived the (time for the fulfillment of the) oath that the Holy One Blessed be He had sworn to our father Abraham to redeem his children. But they had no mitzvot to engage in, which would enable their redemption… And so the Holy One Blessed be He gave them two mitzvot – the blood of the Paschal lamb and the blood of circumcision to engage in for their redemption… Therefore, the Holy One Blessed be He commanded the taking of the Pesach offering four days before its slaughtering, for reward is given only for the act. (Mechilta D’Rabbi Yishmael, Shemot 12:6)

Although the dominant theme of the Exodus and the holiday of Pesach is G-d’s great kindness and awesome power to control the world, it seems that G-d would only perform these miracles on our behalf if we did something to deserve them.  The Kabbalists explain this phenomenon with a unique terminology.  The miracle of the redemption of Pesach, which occurred by the hand of G-d Himself, was an “Isarusa D’leEilah” (אתערותא דלעילה), an “arousal from above.”  G-d took us out of Egypt; we were primarily passive recipients of His kindness.  Nevertheless, the “arousal from above” could only occur if there was first an “arousal from below,” an “Isarusa D’letata” (אתערותא דלתתא).

We understand why the people of Israel had to perform some Mitzvot before the redemption could take place.  But why did G-d choose to give us these two particular mitzvot – the Passover offering and Brit Milah – as our way to merit the redemption?

Uncovering the Faith Within

Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shapira, HY’D, the Piacetzner Rebbe, is often described as the “Rebbe of the Warsaw Ghetto.”  During those terribly dark years in the ghetto, before he was murdered in November 1943, the Rebbe was a beacon of light and strength for many of the Jews in the Warsaw ghetto.  In 1950, a Polish construction worker clearing rubble from the ruined Warsaw Ghetto unearthed a tin milk container containing a trove of Hebrew and Yiddish language manuscripts, among them the wartime sermons of Rav Shapira.  These powerful sermons were eventually published under the title “Aish Kodesh,” “Holy Fire.”

In a sermon given shortly before Pesach in 1942, Rav Shapira teaches that the Jewish people possess an inherent, instinctual faith:

We Jewish people are always filled with love and fear of G-d, and our faith is steadfast.  These traits are instinctive, as they are inherited from our ancestors.  As an extreme example of this, we learn in the Talmud: “A thief during his burglary calls upon the Merciful One.” (Berachot 63a) The urge to pray is so automatic that even when a person is about to break one of the Ten Commandments, his instinct forces him to call upon G-d, praying not to be caught in the act of his transgression.

Faith is not an “external” accomplishment that is foreign to us; it is within us, in our spiritual DNA!  Nevertheless, a Jew does not automatically perceive or feel this faith within themselves:

(But) without exercising or adding to it, a person will remain unaware of his natural faith, love or devotion, unconscious of the vital sanctity we inherited from our ancestors.  Only when he does something to increase his faith, love or devotion do they become obvious to him and he is able to feel them. (Aish Kodesh, Parshat HaChodesh, 1942)

Every one of us, simply because we are born Jews, possess a unique holiness – a natural faith and trust in G-d.  But this faith can only be “accessed” when we ourselves make an effort to increase our faith.

This is why G-d gave the people of Israel the Mitzvot of Brit Milah and the Passover offering as their way of “earning” the redemption.  The performance of both of these Mitzvot demanded Mesirut Nefesh, great faith and sacrifice, by the people of Israel.  As you might imagine, the prospect of undergoing a Brit Milah as an adult (in the days before modern medicine, no less!) was probably frightening, and required all of the men of that generation to tangibly demonstrate their faith in G-d.

An even greater demonstration of faith was their fulfillment of G-d’s command to sacrifice lambs – revered as a deity by the Egyptians – as an offering to G-d.  As Rav Shapira writes: “(By taking the lambs,) the people demonstrated that they were prepared to give their lives for G-d, as it is written: “Moses said, ‘If we slaughter the sacrifice, this Egyptian taboo, will the Egyptians not stone us?’ (Shemot 8:22) But the Jews went ahead, regardless of the danger… (Aish Kodesh, ibid).

In submitting to Brit Milah and courageously bringing the Passover sacrifice in full view of the Egyptians, the people of Israel rose to the occasion and actively took steps to “increase” their faith, thereby activating the natural holiness and faith that lay within them as an inheritance from their ancestors!

Shabbat HaGadol: When our People Discovered Greatness

Why does Jewish tradition annually commemorate the tenth day of Nissan, when the Egyptians were forced to watch us prepare the sacrifice of their deity, with the celebration of “Shabbat HaGadol”?  Why was this moment within the story of the Exodus singled out for commemoration, more than the miraculous plagues that preceded it? For it was at this moment in history that our people, for the very first time, actualized their inner greatness!

It’s true that at this point in history, the people of Israel were hardly paragons of purity and devotion.  The Rabbis teach that the people had sunk to the “49th level of impurity” by the time of the Exodus.  And according to the Midrash, when G-d saved the people of Israel at the Red Sea and drowned the Egyptian army, the angel of Egypt was able to rightfully protest to God: “Both these (the Egyptians) and these (the Israelites) worship idols!” (Midrash HaGadol, Vayetze) Perfect, we were not!

And yet at this moment, when our people found the courage and faith to set aside lambs for slaughter in full view of their former taskmasters, they proved they were greater than they appeared to be. Though there would be many moments of failure and “smallness” in their future, our ancestors showed that deep within the Jewish soul lies extraordinary wellsprings of faith.  It was this act of faith on the tenth day of Nissan that was the prerequisite, the “arousal from below” necessary to bring about the great redemption of the fifteenth day of Nissan.

The other miracles of the Exodus story may have been far more “miraculous” than this one.  But all of those miracles, as extraordinary as they were, were demonstrations of G-d’s greatness.  Shabbat HaGadol, the “Great Shabbat”, commemorates a moment far humbler, but just as significant: when we, the Jewish people, proved that we can also be great; that we can be worthy of redemption!

Quiet Greatness

What is asked of you, American Chassid of the new millennium…

Not a hole cut in a frozen lake in lieu of a ritual bath.

Not an underground cheder beneath the communists’ noses.

Not execution by NKVD firing squad

in a 2 AM courtyard, leaving behind a wife

and children, a legacy,

and a quarter loaf of bread.

You will never be like the Chassidim of last century Russia…

(Yehoshua November, American Chassid)

It’s a sentiment that all of us share; a sense that we, in our generation of extraordinary comfort and prosperity, will never sniff the greatness of generations past.  In our minds, we form a sharp distinction between ourselves and the great and holy Jews of the earlier generations; between those who struggled to feed their families in the shadows of pogroms, and we who struggle to remain calm when our iphone has gone missing.  Even now, as the entire world struggles with the Coronavirus, we belittle our own challenges in comparison to those of earlier times. “Your grandparents were called to war. You are being called to sit on your couch!”

It is true, of course, that earlier generations faced challenges that we did not.  And it is also true that even today, the doctors, nurses and health care professionals among us are courageously risking their own health and safety on a daily basis, a risk that most of us are not asked to take.  But minimizing the innumerable challenges that the rest of us are struggling with – as if we are simply “sitting on couches” – is both harmful and wrong.

We know that we suffer – and we get no credit for it!  Sometimes we feel the bitterness of the generation that fought World War I, but we cannot write our memoirs and say “goodbye to all that,” cannot tells stories of how our boots rotted in the mud, cannot deflect the neighborhood praise and be modest as we lean against the bar.  They don’t know we’re brave.  They don’t know we fight in trenches, too. (Peggy Noonan, You’d Cry Too if it Happened to You, Forbes, September 14, 1992)

Though we may not be standing in the line of fire, our lives have been upended.  Parents must balance full time jobs with the demands of home schooling their anxious children. Our faith is strained as so many lose their jobs or see businesses built through years of hard labor on the brink of collapse.  And how many seniors find themselves alone, day after long day, preparing for the loneliest Seder of their lives.  All of us are struggling; all of us are fighting!

Quietly, without any fanfare, our “spoiled” generation of kosher sushi and lavish Pesach programs is rising to the challenge.  Think of the mother who discovers new reservoirs of patience and forbearance as her child throws yet another temper tantrum.  Think of the father who has lost his job, yet forces himself to smile and throw a football around with his kids, so that they won’t share his worry.  Think of the lonely widow who opens her heart to others who are in pain, lending her ear to their troubles.  And you can be sure that when this crisis is past us – may that day come soon! – there will be no accolades awaiting us, no parades in our honor.  Is this not greatness too?

In the very first verse of the Haftorah for Shabbat Hagadol, we read: “Then shall the offerings of Judah and Jerusalem be as sweet to G-d as they were in the days of old, and as in ancient years.” (Malachi 3:4) On Shabbat HaGadol, as we commemorate the first moment of greatness in our people’s history, we recall a promise from Malachi, the last of our prophets: “Jews of the future, you who are living in the final generations before Moshiach, please know this: You too can be great!  Your offerings, your sacrifices and your faith will be as sweet to G-d as the awesome acts of faith and courage of the earlier generations!”

At the time of the Exodus, we experienced an extremely great rectification; therefore, on the anniversary of this event, there shines forth a light that parallels the one that illuminated us then… (Rav Moshe Chaim Luzzato, Derech Hashem, Part 4, 7:6)

Our forefathers who left Egypt were flawed people, immersed in impurity and idolatry.  But on the tenth of Nissan, they found the courage and faith to defy the Egyptians and fulfill the Mitzvah that G-d had asked of them – and achieved eternal greatness.  This is the light of the tenth of Nissan, the light from long ago that can illuminate our own darkness, today! We too can rise above our flaws and impurity, and awaken the natural faith passed down to us from our holy forefathers.  We too can achieve greatness!

In every generation a person is obligated to regard himself as if he had come out of Egypt…”

A Blessing for Every Day

The verse states: ‘Blessed be the Lord day by day.’ (Tehillim 68:20) Are we then to bless Him by day and not bless Him by night? Rather, the verse means to teach us that every day we should give Him the blessing appropriate to that day… (Brachot 40a)

Every moment is a unique opportunity; every day is worthy of its own blessing. “Do not say, ‘How was it that former times were better than these?’ For that is not a question prompted by wisdom.” (Kohelet 7:10) Our generation, our time, our test – these, too, are worthy of blessing.  G-d has presented us with an extraordinary test, a test which offers us the opportunity for greatness.  “For there is no man who has not his hour, and no thing that has not its place.” (Avot 4:3) This is our hour, and this is our place!

What is asked of you, American Chassid of the new millennium…

A little joy, a little faith. 

Not believing the world is the way it looks on the surface…

Like our forefathers so long ago, may we illuminate the darkness of our times with the light of our faith and hope.  And like our forefathers before us, may soon see the redeeming hand of G-d, speedily in our days!