Shabbat HaGadol: It Matters Now, Too

This Shabbat is called Shabbat HaGadol, the “great Shabbat,” possibly echoing the content of the special Haftarah chanted on this day, which speaks of a “great and terrible day” which is coming.
הִנֵּ֤ה אָֽנֹכִי֙ שֹׁלֵ֣חַ לָכֶ֔ם אֵ֖ת אֵלִיָּ֣ה הַנָּבִ֑יא לִפְנֵ֗י בּ֚וֹא י֣וֹם ה’ הַגָּד֖וֹל וְהַנּוֹרָֽא׃

Here, I will send the prophet Elijah to you before the coming of the great and terrifying day of HaShem. (Malakhi 3.23)

The Prophet Malakhi – his name means merely “my messenger” – brings words to a people demoralized, despairing of truth and no longer so sure that virtue is a reward. They have seen those who cheat and lie prosper, and those who abuse workers and the vulnerable poor grow rich. They have begun to wonder if anything matters at all, and why be good, why try your best, if evil is flourishing?
It’s a perennial question for us Jews, and for those who love us and travel with us. We are preparing once again to celebrate the Pesakh Seder with all those who are part of our community, and for some of us there may be a painful undertone of wondering if it really matters. How can we pay attention to requirements for ridding our houses of hametz when the world seems so overwhelmingly full of something much worse, which we don’t seem to be able to eradicate?
Let me offer you a few brief thoughts if this is where you find yourself on this Shabbat before Pesakh 5779.
1. For those who are moved by comparison: the song is V’hi Sheh-amdah, which reminds us that this is not the first time. Our ancestors have seen worse, and who are we not to keep up the traditions they managed to preserve?
2  For those who prefer relevant symbolism: consider the circumstances of the first Pesakh. Plagues have destroyed much of Egypt’s infrastructure and the people are rightly terribly frightened – as are the Jews who witness the terror. It is at the moment of greatest fear, when one experiences the strongest inclination toward despair and immobilization, that the door to freedom is opened. Not before. The Prophet Malakhi’s message warns exactly of this: the day that comes will be great, but not in the colloquial sense. It will be terrifying. In other words, don’t wait for the situation to calm before responding – it may not calm.
3. And for those who want to consider integrity of practice: in a few days it will be time for you to collect all that is hametz in your house, and to either finish it, give it away, or lock it up and send me a list so that I can symbolically sell it for you, so that you will be living in accordance with the Torah’s dictate that “no hametz shall be found in your possession during the Festival of Matzot.” (Exodus 12.19). As the great Israeli philosopher Yeshayahu Leibowitz taught, A ritual that is only followed when you feel like it is no true ritual; a prayer you only recite when you want to indicates that you have no G*d but yourself. And good luck with that.
My friends, this was a difficult week – and this was not the first like it, and it will not be the last. It’s rather like standing in the ocean in rough water just deep enough that each wave crashing to the beach nearly knocks one down. We cannot stop the flow and we cannot get used to it – but in a real community of mutual support and caring, we can hold each other’s hands and together meet the next wave without being swept away.
We are no different from those who came before us, really: we make our meaning as a small island of calm in the midst of a great rough sea of uncertainty. The more we give to it, the stronger it is when we come to need it. Don’t skimp on your Shabbat; don’t short change yourself on your Pesakh; don’t worry if you cannot see the ultimate meaning of all of this ritual, or of the world that surrounds us so overwhelmingly. There is, in the end, a comfort in joining the rest of us in dipping karpas in salt water, in hiding matzah for children to find, and in singing dayenu. May it be enough.

Shabbat haGadol: What’s So Great About It?

This Shabbat, on which we read parashat Metzora, is called the Shabbat HaGadol, the Great Shabbat, because this year it is the last Shabbat before Pesakh. There are several possible reasons why it got the moniker. One is that Jews spent more time than usual in the shul getting a refresher on all things Pesakh, especially the Haggadah and the halakha for cleaning the house. (It’s ironically appropriate that this week’s parashat hashavua mentions diseases that visit houses in this context. Hmmm – is a house full of clutter more likely to develop a disease?)

The Shabbat is called HaGadol also because of a striking feature of the special haftarah for this Shabbat, from the Book Malakhi 3.4-24. The passage calls upon a day on which all the world will be just, and fair.

“Behold, the day is coming – it will burn like a furnace – and all the arrogant, and all who do evil, will be like the worthless stubble left after the harvest. The day that is coming will set them ablaze and they will be left with neither root nor branch. But for you who have done well, and feared evil, for you a sun of righteousness will arise with healing in its wings, and you will come forth and dance like happy calves in the meadow.” (Malakhi 3.19-20)

All the centuries of commentators and all the interpreters of texts have been drawn to this apocalyptic vision, in which the wicked finally are punished and those who do good are rewarded, because they knew as well as we that such has never really been the case, at least not in any consistent, objective way.

It’s a real problem. There are many who deny any foundational meaning to their lives because of the reality of injustice – of evil done by powerful people and innocent suffering. It offends us all. But becoming a cynic in response is the most self-defeating of acts, because then no one moves to defeat the evil that does exist. And then it wins. And the opposite – believing in the vision, and taking a vindictive pleasure in the idea that soon, they will get theirs – is one of the more dangerous impulses informing this electoral cycle.

So what is the point of this haftarah, and why do we hear it chanted on this Shabbat before Pesakh? Most likely it has to do with the mention of Elijah the Prophet, who will come to us at the End of Days to proclaim that finally, everything will be all right. We put out a cup of wine for him, a cup that symbolizes all the unanswered questions of halakhah, and in that way, of all the questions that keep us awake at night, and can’t be answered.

Some day, Elijah will tell us this (or we’ll figure it out for ourselves and therefore summon him): there is only one answer for those who ask why life isn’t fair, and why the innocent suffer, and why some take refuge in lies which are promises that can’t be kept. And that is to change your perspective. The interpreters and commentators of our tradition teach that those who run after power, and do evil with it, don’t even know what they are missing: the Shekhinah, the Presence of G*d, that one can only sense in g’milut hasadim, the practice of loving kindness.

It will be all right, if we put our faith in the meaning of being kind, no matter how many people are mean. They will never know that what they really want is right here, in the next mitzvah you do, as long as you do it lovingly, kindly, with delight. That message is what is so great about this Shabbat.