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.
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Shabbat HaGadol: Being Commanded isn’t Enough, and Neither is Being Free

The days before and after Shabbat haGadol, “the Great Shabbat,” are meant to be a time of excitement and joy, of running around to find the best ingredients and the nicest symbolic foods for our Seder. It’s a time to clean house, to bring out the Pesakh plates and the “good” utensils in honor of the holy day, and of looking forward to being with people we love for the special evening. It’s also a time to review the Haggadah, to prepare to sell the hametz, and to remind ourselves – or enjoy learning for the first time – all the laws and customs and habits.

Shabbat haGadol is always the Shabbat just preceding the Seder. This year the parashat hashavua is Tzav, “command.” And it’s worth taking a moment to let that word remind us that for our ancestors, the preparations for and the observances of Pesakh were not something to decide upon but obligations to fulfill and commands to obey. We are on the other side of an abyss from that world, a would defined by the certainty that one’s life was plotted out with clear rules and duties. It may sound burdensome, but Jewish tradition insists that there is a freedom inherent within submission to the mitzvot. 

We live on the other side of that abyss, in a world of choices that we believe we make freely – until we consider the impact of the influences upon the choices we make: what our friends do, what we believe is expected of us, what our parents formed in us from an early age which we either strive to fulfill or are still in reaction against. Then there’s marketing, advertising, and all the other ways in which our society creates the conditions for psychological suggestion. In a world of so many influences, how are we supposed to know what the best choice might be? And what makes us think that we are really free to discern and make that choice?

The great Israeli philosopher Yeshayahu Leibowitz (brother of the great Torah teacher Nehama Leibowitz – what was that family’s Seder like?) taught that freedom is an illusion. “Cows grazing in a meadow are free,” he said, “they have no obligations at all. Neither are they capable of achieving anything at all. Do you want to be as free as a cow?”

We human beings have obligations, not least to those cows. But that realization is not enough, just as the sign posted in the gym where I exercise five days a week is not, in its urging me to “Live With Intention – Be Bold and Fearless – Make a Difference.” One following these promptings could just as easily apply them to intentionally using the nuclear option in the Senate to force a Supreme Court confirmation, boldly and fearlessly gutting the EPA, and making a difference in the Syrian conflict by bombing refugees.

It’s not enough to be free, and it’s not even enough to know you are commanded, if you do not have a sense of how, and and community to check yourself with. Mitzvot offer a valid and beautiful way to answer the question of “how”,  and the community, through which law is adumbrated and flexed, is the way that the Jewish people developed a meta-ethic of “love your neighbor as yourself” which is meant to communally overrule (by practicing, or, more to the point, not) some of our eternal Torah laws which are not so appropriate.

The sacred Jewish community isn’t perfect, and neither are its laws – both are holy inspiration, though, faithfully if imperfectly transmitted by human hearts and hands. It makes our review of the Pesakh laws comforting – we’re going to do once again something our people has done for millennia – and it guides our free choice, narrowing down the options to something more relevant, coherent, and, even, safe, in the face of all that chaos of what might otherwise seem an endless, meaningless flow of equally valid choices.  

May you find comfort in the mitzvot and the excitement of Pesakh, and be reassured that in the face of unimaginable tragedy wherever it exists in our world, these mitzvot have Eternal meaning. We may not always know what that meaning is – but we’ll only discover it by immersing ourselves in the doing. Consider it your thread of sanity and certainty in all this rain.

hazak v’nithazek, let us be strong and strengthen each other,