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 the reason it’s called the Great Shabbat is 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 went out, 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 firstborn – the Angel of Death passed over the houses marked with blood on the doorposts. When they set aside the animals, the Egyptians asked them what they are doing and they responded that they are setting aside these animals for slaughter, because G-d commanded them to do so, as He is taking us out of Egypt. The Egyptians said, what do you mean you are going to slaughter this animal? This is our god! They were pagans, they worshipped the sheep and the goats and they said how can you slaughter our gods? Yet the people had the faith and the courage to stand up to the Egyptians, to set aside the animals and publicly announce their intentions. That year, the 10th of Nissan came out on Shabbos. It was a miracle that the Egyptians were unable to attack the Jews for their blasphemous outrage. This is the miracle we remember every year, on the Shabbos before Pesach. And hence the name Shabbat HaGadol, “the Great Shabbos.”
All of the other miracles – the ten plagues, the splitting of the sea – we commemorate on Pesach itself. Why do we remember this miracle in particular on the Shabbos before Pesach?
The darkness and cynicism in the world
To understand the significance of this miracle and consequently the significance of Shabbat HaGadol we must first understand the special Haftarah for Shabbat HaGadol. Our Sages instituted that with each parsha we also read a section from the Prophets. The reading from the Prophets this week is 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 a lot of antagonism towards Hashem and His Torah. Malachi laments this and says Chazku alay divreichem, “you have spoken harshly against Me,” says Hashem. They said shav avod Elokim uma betza ki shamarnu mishmarto, “it is useless to serve Hashem; what benefit is there to us in keeping His ordinances?” They said it’s a waste of time; shav means it’s meaningless, pointless. And they also said ma betza, what do we gain from it? When we speak of morality, we can view it from two perspectives: one is the intrinsic, moral value in what we are doing and the other is the personal benefit we gain from being moral—what we call “utilitarian morality.” The people in Malachi’s time were saying there is no point in serving Hashem; it’s empty, worthless, and there is no utilitarian benefit to us. They even went on to say, Ve’ata anachnu me’ashrim zeidim, gam nivnu osei harish’a, “we now praise the wicked, and the evildoers are built up.” The people were praising wickedness. It wasn’t as if they had succumbed to temptation; they were brazenly opposed to Hashem and to the Torah’s value system. How did Malachi respond to this crisis? The prophet says in verse 16, Az nidberu yir’ei Hashem ish el rei’eihu, “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 Hashem for those who fear Hashem and for those who give thought to His Name.” After that, the prophet says everything changes; once again they will see the difference between the righteous and the wicked; between those who serve G-d and those who do not, and this will stand them in good stead for the Day of Judgment and the Final Redemption that will come to the world.
It says the people were cynical; the world was full of negativity and antagonism. Then it says those who feared G-d spoke together and they turned the situation around. How did they do that? What was Malachi’s advice to overcome the cynicism and negativity?
Torah is the antidote to cynicism and negativity
The key to understanding this is a Mishnah in Pirkei Avot, in Ethics of the Fathers, chapter 3 Mishnah 3: 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 – it quotes the verse from our Haftarah – As nidberu yir’ei Hashem, “then those who feared G-d came to speak together.”
This Mishnah helps us better understand the Haftarah. When righteous people get together and speak words of Torah and learn together, that will give them the right perspective on life. It’s contrasting the righteous with the scoffers who say we will praise the wicked, and what benefit is there for us in keeping G-d’s statutes? Malachi is saying that the antidote to cynicism, aggression and antagonism toward true good values is Education – learning Torah. Good people getting together to speak and to 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 which says that 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. In a generation where people are leaving Hashem, where cynicism is rampant and darkness permeates the world, G-d says just focus on learning Torah and the light within it will bring the people back to understanding right and wrong. The Haftarah then continues, “then people will again see the difference between the righteous and the wicked, between one who serves G-d and one who doesn’t.”
Faith is a prerequisite to redemption
Now we can understand the concept of Shabbat HaGadol. Going back to our original question of what is so special about this miracle, the answer is that there is nothing about this miracle which makes it qualitatively more important, necessitating a separate day of commemoration – except this: this miracle took place before the redemption. The people were being called upon to act with faith and courage; in the darkness of Egypt G-d said to them, now take the gods of Egypt and slaughter them and let’s see if you are prepared to have the courage and conviction – not after the redemption, when you are free and can do whatever you want – but now, in the darkness of the oppression. The fact that the people were prepared to slaughter the gods of Egypt and stand up with pride in their value system, with a clarity of vision, is what we recall on Shabbat HaGadol – not so much the miracle that was done for them that the Egyptians didn’t harm them, but rather 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 all of the pressures, danger and the darkness.
And this is why we read from this chapter in Malachi. Malachi is the last of the Prophets. After his time, the world was darkened; prophecy ceased and there was no more direct communication with G-d. Malachi’s prophecy was for all times. He was saying, after the voice of prophecy is silenced in the world, you are going to have to have faith and courage to face a world of darkness. There will be scoffers and cynics; there will be people who will fight against your values with antagonism and with aggression and you are going to have to have the faith and the courage to face people who don’t accept your values. How will you do it? Az nidberu yir’ei Hashem – you are going to have to talk to one another and work together. You will have to build communities and families centred on the Torah learning. The light within the Torah will give you the strength and the clarity of vision to know what is right and what is wrong, and the inspiration to live in accordance with your values. This is what we recall on Shabbat HaGadol.
Towards the end of this chapter it says Zichru Torat Moshe avdi, “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 have a cup of wine for Elijah the Prophet and we open the door for him, because he is the one who heralds the Final Redemption. On Seder night there is a general atmosphere of redemption because, as our Sages teach us, in the same way that we were redeemed from Egypt during the month of Nissan, so too will G-d redeem us again in the month of Nissan. Elijah the Prophet represents the fact that the redemption is around the corner, but hasn’t yet arrived. 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 have to spread its light. We have to reach out across the generations, as the prophet in our Haftarah says, “And the heart of parents will turn to children, and the heart of children to parents.” The generation gaps will be bridged through the values of the Torah. Every generation is a new era, and what holds the generations together are the eternal values of the Torah. Seder night is about connecting those generations, the heart of the parents to the children and the heart of the children to the parents, to join in reaffirmation of our faith, with courage and conviction.
This is why Shabbat HaGadol comes just before Pesach, to say, at this time of redemption we have work to do as well. The people didn’t just “get” redeemed; they first had to demonstrate their faith and courage. He instructed them to slaughter the gods of Egypt, to put the blood on the doorposts, and through that act of faith and courage they merited the redemption. As we gather around our Seder tables on Pesach, we need to have the right mindset and Shabbat HaGadol prepares us for this. As we go into this festival of redemption we need to reaffirm our faith and our commitment to Hashem’s Torah, to stand up with pride, courage and conviction, to proclaim to the world what we believe in and to pass this on to the next generation. And let the next generation teach us as well – that the heart of the parents will turn to the children and the heart of the children will return to the parents. Our renewed commitment shows Hashem that we are worthy of Him bringing His Final Redemption to the world, please G-d may it come speedily in our times.