Rabbi David Walk, Education Director

Congregation Agudath Sholom | 301 Strawberry Hill Ave | Stamford, CT 06902 (203)-358-2200 www.agudathsholom.org

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Walk Article


Shabbat HaGadol-5772

Rabbi David Walk


            Elizabeth Barrett Browning famously asked, "How do I love thee? Let me count the ways."  Well, no matter how many ways she came up with, we have a larger number of explanations for why this Shabbat is called HaGadol or the The Great One, (no reference to either Jackie Gleason or Wayne Gretzky).  And every year, the number grows.  There are a lot of rabbi types scurrying around even as I write (or you read) this coming up with new and innovative approaches to this topic.  Hurray for their ingenuity!  However, there are a few standard answers to this riddle.  The most famous answer is that this Shabbat was the tenth of Nissan in the year of the exodus, and there was the great miracle of the Jews taking the Paschal Lamb and the Egyptians didn't react to these erstwhile slaves trapping one of their gods.  Others suggest that this Shabbat before Pesach is compared to the holiday nature of Pesach itself, and we proclaim that Shabbat is greater than holidays.  Without dampening the zeal of these seekers, I must state that I happen to believe that there is one correct answer to the question.  Generally, special Sabbaths are named for a quote from the distinctive Haftorah chosen to describe that date.  For example we have Shabbat Chazon, Shabbat Nachamu and Shabbat Shuva, all named for an outstanding word in the Haftorah of that distinguished Sabbath.  So, why don't we just accept the fact that the word 'great' stands out in the Haftorah to be chanted this week?  Simply because in all the other cases the distinguishing word is right at the beginning of the Haftorah, and this week it's at the end.  That difference sent people searching for other possibilities.  So, this week I'd like to explore the message in this reading from the Prophets.

            The quote which I believe lent its name to this distinguished Sabbath is:  Lo, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and awesome day of the Lord, that he will turn the heart of the parents back to the children, and the heart of the children back to their parents (Malachi 3:23-24).  This great and awesome day being referred to is, of course, the time of the future, complete redemption which we all anticipate.  We can infer two things from the custom of reading this material right before Pesach.  First, when we discuss the exodus from Egypt we should also be thinking about the future redemption as well.  And, secondly, the future redemption will happen at this time of year, and that's why we mention it now.  Well, maybe not on that second idea, because we also quote verses about the future redemption during Sukkot.  Indeed, there is an argument in Talmud over whether the future redemption will take place in Tishre (Sukkot) or Nissan (Pesach). 

I think that we can even say that there is a hint to this disagreement in the verse itself.  We talk about this future date as great and awesome.  Great implies wonderful and marvelous.  However, the term nora which we translated as awesome can also mean terrifying and scary.  So, perhaps there are two options for the redemptive process.  One pleasant and one less so.  We can even identify the two potential time frames.  If it happens in the spring and Nissan, it will be fabulous, because this is a pleasant time of year with great optimism.  On the other hand if it happens in Tishre, during the harvest, it will be an event filled with anxiety and trepidation.  That's a time of year when farmer and the world feel tested and judged.  Historically Tishre really was the time of year when it was decided who would live and who would die.  If that barn wasn't full, the odds of you and your family surviving the winter were like the odds of the Mets winning the 2012 World Series, in other words:  lousy.

            There is, perhaps, another way of understanding the greatness of this future redemption.  It will be greater than the redemption from Egypt.  While we're involved in our annual study of the exodus we also anticipate, if not actually plan, for the future redemption.  And when the prophet Malachi says that it will be 'The Big One', he means that it will be more marvelous than the first redemption so long ago.  Our study of the past anticipates the future.

            Who will be the Moshe in this future event?  Obviously the Godot we await is the descendant of King David, the Anointed One.  This reality is hinted at in many places, many of them in Isaiah.  So, why the reference to Eliyahu in this verse?  Parenthetically, I believe, that it's this quote which arranged for the major role of Eliyahu at our Seder.  It seems that Eliyahu, who was also a Cohen, will play the role of Aharon in the future redemption.  And he will be greater than Aharon.  How do I presume to judge them?  The verse itself testifies.  According to tradition Aharon loved and pursued peace.  This meant that he brought peace between warring friends.  He mended his generation, an amazing and wonderful accomplishment.  But look again at our verse:  he will turn the heart of the parents back to the children, and the heart of the children back to their parents.  Eliyahu will bring peace across generations, an even greater accomplishment.  Eliyahu bridges the generation gap. 

            That's why we want Eliyahu at our Seder.  He represents the concept of the parents teaching the children, and the children guiding their parents with poignant questions.  Isn't that the point of the Seder and our Jewish tradition?  I'm not sure how to accomplish this incredible feat, but the paradigm of Eliyahu teaches us that it can be done.  It's up to us to find to find the right formula for our generation and for our children.  And that idea is indeed very great.  Have a Great Shabbat! 


You can subscribe to Rabbi Walk's weekly articles at WalkThroughTheParsha-subscribe@egroups.com