The rabbi of my childhood was a man of the “Greatest Generation.” He would ascend to the pulpit to give a sermon, ceremoniously take off his large silver watch, place it on the bimah, and begin speaking (he never looked at his watch again). I would then place my head on the shoulder of one of my parents and close my eyes until it was over.
This Shabbat is called Shabbat HaGadol (the Great Shabbat), and some joke that it was so named for the extended time it took for the rabbi to explicate the laws of Pesah. Its greatness was really about its length.
It feels challenging to touch the greatness of this Shabbat in the midst of so much brokenness. The unlawful and barbaric war in Ukraine rages on and the horror of its realities evoke images of the atrocities of the Shoah, the Holocaust. It’s even the very same soil. And the list continues: Terror has reared its head anew in Israel. Oklahoma passed a near complete abortion ban this week. Inflation is squeezing so many who have nothing left to give. Another mass shooting took place this week, this time in Sacramento. Even with the hope of moving from a pandemic to an endemic, we can’t really comprehend the enormity of the impact of these two years—on our mental health, on the lives of our children— and the invisible grief we carry. Exhaustion, despair, impotence, and cynicism abound, and rightly so.
According to many commentaries, the greatness of this Shabbat lies in the fact that the Israelites first observed the commandment to take the Pesah sacrifice on this date. It says in Exodus 12:3: “In the 10th day of this month they shall take to them every man a lamb….” The tradition teaches that in the year of the Exodus, the 10th of the month of Nisan was Shabbat. Therefore, this Shabbat represents the first collective action of the Israelites to affirm their commitment to God, through the fulfillment of this mitzvah. What makes this act so great is that they had yet to be taken out of Egypt, redemption had not arrived, and they were still enslaved. The Sefat Emet, Rabbi Yehuda Leib Alter of Gur (1847-1905), teaches that the Israelites chose to see beyond the darkness around them and took the lamb to assert their belief that redemption would come. They aroused their desire for redemption and they prepared for it.
To expect little or nothing is certainly less disappointing, but it is not the condition of spiritual greatness. It is not a pathway to redemption.
Shabbat HaGadol reminds us of this radical, courageous, faithful, and visionary act of the Israelites.
I’ve started to prepare for Pesah—to rid my home of hametz (leavened food), to clean, to study, to help plan the meal and the seder. I pray for all of us that each act of preparation is not only a time-honored tradition or spring cleaning or just what we do. Each act is the real, active choice to awaken the desire for redemption.
In Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor E. Frankl writes:
Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.
That’s exactly what the Israelites did thousands of years ago. They chose.
On this Shabbat HaGadol, how might we learn from their greatness?