The Shabbos before Pesach is called Shabbat HaGadol – “the Great Shabbat”. On it, we commemorate the miracle of the Divine protection we were afforded against the Egyptians after sacrificing the paschal lamb – an Egyptian god. This upholding of a value system, this great moral clarity and willingness to act on it is what we celebrate on Shabbat HaGadol. We recall not only the miracle that the Jewish people remained unharmed, but the miracle of our ancestors’ courage; their conviction in standing up for their values and doing the right thing in spite of severe pressure, danger and darkness.
This Shabbos, the Shabbos before Pesach, is called Shabbat HaGadol – “the Great Shabbat”. It is a very special Shabbos. The Shulchan Aruch – the Code of Jewish Law, explains that it’s called the “Great Shabbat” because a great miracle happened on this day.
What was the miracle? We know that the Jewish people left Egypt on the 15th of Nissan, the night we celebrate the Seder. Five days before they departed, on the 10th of Nissan, they were instructed to set aside a sheep or a goat for the paschal sacrifice and to smear its blood on the doorposts. That’s how they survived the plague of the death of the firstborn – the Angel of Death passed over the houses with these marked doorposts. We know that these sheep and goats were, in fact, Egyptian gods, and when the Egyptians realised that they were being slaughtered wholesale by the Jews, they were outraged.
Yet the people had the faith and courage to stand up to the Egyptians; to set aside these animals and, indeed, publicly announce their intentions. That year, the 10th of Nisan fell on Shabbos. And every year, on the Shabbos before Pesach, we celebrate the miracle that the Jews were protected from the Egyptians taking vengeance for what they took to be heinous sacrilege.
But there’s a question here. On Pesach itself, we celebrate all the miracles that happened before, during and after the Exodus. Why do we reserve the commemoration of this particular miracle for the Shabbos before Pesach?
The darkness and cynicism in the world
To understand the significance of this miracle and of Shabbat HaGadol itself, a good place to start is the special Haftarah we read on this special Shabbat HaGadol. The reading is taken from the third and final chapter of Malachi, the last of the prophets. Malachi lived in difficult times. The world was filled with cynicism and there was great antagonism towards Hashem and His Torah. “You have spoken harshly against Me,” says Hashem in the Haftorah. “[You have said] it is useless to serve Hashem; what benefit is there to us in keeping His ordinances?” For the scoffers of the generation, serving G-d was pointless, meaningless, of no benefit. Further on in the Haftorah, the verse relates how this generation praised the wicked, upholding them as an example to follow.
How did Malachi respond to this crisis? The prophet says: “Then those who feared G-d spoke to one another. And G-d listened and He heard what they had to say. And it was written in the book of remembrances in front of G-d for those who fear G-d and for those who give thought to His Name.”
Suddenly everything changes. The cynicism and negativity gets overrun by those “who feared G-d” coming together to oppose those destructive forces. How did that happen What exactly was this great antidote?
Torah is the antidote to cynicism and negativity
The key to understanding this is a Mishna in Pirkei Avot. “Rabbi Chananya ben Tradyon said, if two people are sitting together and there are no words of Torah between them, this is a gathering of scoffers. But if there are two people sitting together and there are words of Torah being spoken between them, the Divine Presence comes to dwell among them.” As it says: “Then those who feared G-d came to speak together.” This, of course, is the verse from our Haftarah.
The Mishna helps us better understand the verse. When righteous people join together and speak words of Torah and learn together, it gives them the right perspective on life. The scoffers, meanwhile, praise the wicked, and question the value of keeping G-d’s statutes. Malachi is saying that the antidote to cynicism and antagonism towards sacred values is education – learning Torah. Good people getting together to discuss and learn Torah is the antidote to all of the cynicism, negativity and darkness in the world. This is borne out by a passage in the Midrash in which G-d says: even if My children have left Me, as long as they learn Torah, the light within it will bring them back to goodness.
Torah is the key to discerning the difference between right and wrong, good and bad, those who serve G-d and those who don’t.
Faith is a prerequisite to redemption
Now we can better understand the essence of Shabbat HaGadol. What was so special about the miracle of the Jews being protected from an Egyptian onslaught after taking the paschal lamb? Why does this get a separate day of commemoration? The fact that the event took place before the redemption. The people were being called on to act with faith and courage – to take a stand and slaughter the Egyptian gods – amid the darkness of oppression, before they were free to act as they chose.
This upholding of a value system, this great moral clarity and willingness to act on it is what we celebrate on Shabbat HaGadol – not the miracle that they remained unharmed, so much as the miracle of their courage. We remember that our ancestors had the courage and conviction to stand up for their values and do the right thing in spite of the severe pressure, danger and darkness.
And that is why we read from this chapter in Malachi. Malachi is the last of the prophets. After his era, the world was darkened; prophecy ceased and there was no more direct communication with G-d. Malachi’s prophecy was for all times. It was a prophecy whose light would endure through the darkness of exile, giving the Jewish people the faith and courage to face the scoffers and cynics, those who antagonise the Jewish people and deny them their values and beliefs.
And how do we withstand this onslaught of negativity. By banding together and “speaking to one another”. Building families and communities centred on Torah learning and Torah values. By shining the light of Torah out into the darkness, and drawing on this light for the clarity of vision to know what is right and what is wrong – and for the strength and inspiration to live in accordance with our values. This is what we recall on Shabbat HaGadol.
Towards the end of this chapter, it says: “Remember the Torah of Moshe, My servant, which I commanded on Mount Sinai to all of the Jewish people – all of the laws and statutes.” And then it says: “Behold I will send you Elijah the Prophet.”
On Seder night, we allocate a cup of wine for Elijah the Prophet and we open the door for him, because it is he who heralds the Final Redemption. This theme of redemption permeates the Seder. As our sages teach us, in the same way that we were redeemed from Egypt during the month of Nisan, so too will G-d redeem us again in the month of Nisan. The cup of Elijah represents the fact that the redemption is near, even though the world is still dark. We pour the cup of wine and open the door for him out of faith and conviction, proclaiming to the world that even though the light of Hashem’s Torah is hidden, we still learn it and spread its illumination.
And we reach out across the generations – as Malachi says: “And the heart of parents will turn to children, and the heart of children to parents.” The generational divide will be bridged through the values of the Torah. Seder night is about connecting the generations, parents with children, and children with parents; a multi-generational, courageous reaffirmation of our faith.
This is why Shabbat HaGadol comes just before Pesach. The message is that even at this time of redemption, when G-d’s miracles were manifest, we had work to do. Our ancestors didn’t just get redeemed; they first had to demonstrate their faith and courage.
Through the courageous, faithful act of slaughtering the gods of Egypt, fulfilling G-d’s will even in the most dire and dangerous of circumstances, we merited the redemption.
As we gather around our Seder tables on Pesach, we need to be in this frame of mind, and Shabbat HaGadol prepares us for exactly that. As we go into this festival of redemption, we need to reaffirm our faith and commitment to Hashem’s Torah – to stand up with pride and conviction, unafraid to proclaim our beliefs and values to the world. And to pass our sacred heritage on to the next generation. And to allow the next generation to teach us as well.
With this renewed commitment, our Creator will see that we are worthy of the Final Redemption – an end to all suffering, and the revelation of the light of G-d in the world.
May it come speedily in our times.