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Ba’al Haturim: Shabbat HaGadol

Our Parsha this week deals with the laws of offerings and sacrifices that were to be given by the Children of Israel and the priests in the Mishkan (the Tabernacle) and it ends with the

inauguration of the Mishkan constructed in the desert, after the great Exodus from Egypt.

The whole concept of offerings is difficult (if not impossible) for us to comprehend because it is so foreign to our lives and our lifestyles. But the one offering that almost all of us DO relate to, is the Pascal offering of the 1st Pesach in Eygpt. What makes this offering and the subsequent give and take of the Seder (when the sacrifice was eaten) so easy to accept? Is it only because the festival represents freedom?

While we might normally abhor the slaughter of an animal as part of a religious ritual, and even be put off by the use of blood in a religious ceremony, we accept the Pascal offering almost without question, on what is probably the most observed and beloved of all Jewish festivals? I believe that part of the answer can be understood in the meaning of Shabbat HaGadol – the Great Shabbat.

When the Jewish People were about to leave Egypt, G-d commanded them (Shemot [Exodus] 12:3-13) to take a lamb, which the Egyptians worshipped as a god, and publicly lead it through the streets to their homes. They were to tie the lamb to their bedposts, and three days later on the eve of Pesach, this lamb was to be offered as the Pesach sacrifice. Its blood was used to mark the doors and lintels so that G-d would `passover’ the Jewish homes, and the meat was eaten at the first Seder on the very night before the Jewish People left Egypt.

We are taught that on that Shabbat, the 10th of Nissan, the Egyptians saw the Jews leading lambs through the streets and asked “What is this lamb for?” The Jews replied “We’re going to slaughter it as a sacrifice, as G-d has commanded us.” Imagine how the Egyptians felt – seeing their god led through the streets and then tied to a bedpost! Even today in India, where cows are considered sacred, no one would dare drag a cow through the streets of a Hindu village. Trains, packed with passengers, on tight schedules, patiently wait and admire cows resting on train tracks. And these normally passive people would immediately become enraged and filled with violence if one were to desecrate their god in such a disrespectful manner. Yet, miraculously, the Egyptians were prevented from harming the Israelites – they ground their teeth in fury, but did not utter a murmur.

This final act of empowerment over Egypt and its culture was a necessary part of the our redemption. Therefore, we commemorate this miracle on the Shabbat immediately preceding Pesach of the 10th of Nissan, on Shabbat HaGadol, `the Great Shabbat.’ Other than occurring on Shabbat, what connection does this miracle have to do with the day itself?

We commemorate Shavuot (Pentacost) on whatever day of the week the 6th day of the month of Sivan occurs. Similarly, Chanukah always starts on the 25th of Kislev, whatever day of the week that happens to be. What was it about this miracle that we link this event to Shabbat rather than its actual calendar date?

The Ba’al HaTurim (Rav Ya’akov ben Rabbi Asher, 1275-1340) gives us the answer in his commentary on the 10 plagues in Parshat Va’era. He teaches us that during Shabbat, all the plagues of Egypt were temporarily suspended: the rivers changed back to water from blood; the frogs stopped swarming, etc. In honor of the holiness of Shabbat, even the plagues `took a rest.’

The 10th of Nissan, when the Jews led their lambs through the streets of Egypt, occurred in the midst of the plague of darkness, which was Shabbat. If this event had taken place on a weekday and the entire land was engulfed in darkness, the Egyptians would not have been able to see what the Jews were doing and there would have been no miracle of Egyptian passivity.

Now we can understand why we commemorate this miracle and why it is called the `Great Shabbat’ on the Shabbat before Pesach and not on the 10th of Nissan. For without Shabbat there was no miracle.

Shabbat is the single most important festive day of the year. Even the other festivals are referred to in the Torah as Shabbat (Vayikra [Leviticus] 23:11, 15, 24, 32, 39). This wonderful gift of Shabbat, commemorating both creation and the exodus from Egypt allows us to become partners in the Hashem’s creation. Families can experience the gifts of Hashem through their observance of His day of convocation, prayer and feasting.

This Shabbat, Shabbat HaGadol, we herald the beginning of a redemptive process that has yet to be completed. We not only observe the historical Pesach, but we anticipate the future Pesach that will be part and parcel of a messianic era not just for the Jewish people. As the prophet Malachi states: “Behold – I send you Elijah the prophet, before the great and awesome day of Hashem.”

May the fifth cup of wine at our Seder this year bring about the restoration of the hearts of fathers (ancestors) and children, and the hearts of children to their fathers, so that all generations and all age groups will know, why this day is different from all others

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