Last we asked, 'What's new?' This week we must ask, 'What's big?' By the way, we also really like big. I'm not sure what we prefer, new or big. I remember when I was growing up the great entertainment impresario, Ed Sullivan, always began his TV program with the words, 'We have a really big shew for you tonight!' And, yes, he always seemed to mispronounce 'show'. At some point I got it, but originally I thought he would bring out the old woman who lived in a shoe. Anyway, Americans especially like 'big'. We like to carry big sticks and think big ideas. But this week, the Jewish people show their love of 'big' with Shabbat Hagadol or the Big Sabbath. Of course, the question then arises what exactly is 'big' about this Shabbat? I mean it is 25 hours long (from 18 minutes before sunset on Friday until 42 minutes after sunset on Saturday) just like all the other Shabbatot. So, let's explore this bigness.
There are many standard answers for why we call this Shabbat 'the Great Shabbat'. Here is a sampling: It was a great miracle that the Jews took the Paschal lamb on that day and the Egyptians didn't harm them, even though it was one of their gods. It was great because this was the first mitzvah most of these Jews had ever performed, so that we became adult or gadol like a bat/bar mitzvah. It's a great Shabbat because we spend so much time studying Torah and preparing for Pesach, especially because of the great classes given. The Jews of Egypt repented from worshipping Egyptian idols and became great themselves as a result of the commitment. Because holidays can also be called Shabbat (as in when count the Omer memacharat ha'shabbat), we proclaim that the seventh day of the week is the greater Shabbat. Since Pesach begins the annual cycle of holidays, this Shabbat is the last of the year and must, perforce, contain the essence and sanctity of all the fifty Shabbatot of the year, making this Shabbat, indeed, very great. This list could go on and on, but probably the real reason that we call this the Great Shabbat is based on the haftorah. Most specially named Shabbatot derive those names from the Haftorah, and this week we read about Elijah the prophet coming back to us before the 'great and awesome day' of our redemption. So, there you go!
However, this year I'd like to share an idea I saw in the name of Reb Shmelkie of Nikolsberg. Reb Shmelkie was born Shmuel Halevy Horowitz in 1726, and was from a prominent rabbinic family which traced its roots all the way back to the prophet Shmuel. That line continues today in the Bostoner and Nikolsberg Chasidic dynasties. Well, Reb Shmelkie explained the greatness of this
Shabbat by elucidating the famous concept that the final redemption would come through the observance of two Shabbatot. He thought this idea was a fulfillment of the curious anomaly in the description of Shabbat in the twin tablets of the Law given at Sinai. One set apparently (some say that both words appeared mystically on both sets of tablets) said zachor et yom hashabbat, 'remember the Shabbat' while the other said shamur et yom hashabbat, 'guard the Shabbat.' Generally, people think 'remember' exhorts us to perform positive acts to make Shabbat special, while 'guard' demands that we carefully refrain from acts which would profane the sanctity of the day. Reb Shmelkie saw it differently.
The great Rebbe of Nikolsberg suggested that shamur referred to the weekdays when we must scrupulously guard ourselves from accepting any allegiance or submission to any alien approach to life, which would constitute foreign worship or service, avodah zara. On the other hand, on Shabbat we must readily accept the yoke of Divine service by bearing witness to God's creation of heaven and earth. This is why in the Ten Commandments, when the word shamur is used the reason for observing Shabbat is given as, 'And you shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and that the Lord your God took you out from there with a strong hand and with an outstretched arm; therefore, the Lord, your God, commanded you to observe the Sabbath day (Deuteronomy 5:15).' While when the word zachor is used the reason for Shabbat is given as, 'For in six days the Lord made the heaven and the earth, the sea and all that is in them, and He rested on the seventh day. Therefore, the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and sanctified it (Exodus 20:110.' Shamur is about removing alien elements; zachor is about strengthening our bond with our God.
That year in Egypt we were told to 'withdraw (mishchu) your hands, and take the lamb for each household (Exodus 12:21).' Translators scratch their heads over how to render that sentence and most fudge it by saying things like 'pick out a lamb', but the word really means 'withdraw' so Reb Shmelkie insists that it means that really we were withdrawing from idolatry and Egypt before we were committing to Pesach and God. Shamur preceded zachor. At that moment we became free of Egypt and Pharaoh. We went into that Shabbat having fulfilled shamur ready and able now to perform a zachor which made that Shabbat truly great and grand!
That withdrawal from alien influences and emotional removal from servitude to Pharaoh made that Shabbat gadol. That act paved the way and initiated the redemption. The redemption wasn't about where our bodies were; it was about where our heads were. Now we must anticipate the future redemption which will be precipitated by a second Shabbat which follows a week of withdrawing from non-Torah influences on our behavior in our workplaces, schools, and leisure. When we enter a Shabbat with no other thoughts than our commitment to our God, it will be liberating, it will be redeeming, it will be GADOL!