THE GREAT ONE
Rabbi David Walk
When a conversation gets to the point where someone refers to, 'The Great One', context and shared experience become critical. If my Dad OB"M used that expression, I knew he meant Jackie Gleason. He loved the Honeymooners. Fifty years ago, a short era of baseball fans referred to that tragic hero Roberto Clemente with that epithet. But for most of my life that phrase referenced Wayne Gretzky, to many the greatest hockey player of all time (except in Boston, where Bobby Orr is still lionized). This is not to be confused with The Greatest, Muhammad Ali. I guess there are many fields where people have their own Great One, like a Great One of typists, hamburger flippers or window washers. BTW I just found out that Dwayne Johnson (The Rock, who was very funny in the remake of Jumanji) was called The Great One during his rasslin' days. My point is that this title is bestowed by those in the know upon the accepted paragon of any field, and it only works if all the insiders nod in agreement. Well, this week we have a Shabbat that gets such a nod. Which, of course, brings us to the question at least on my mind: Why is the Shabbat before Pesach, The Great One?
Before I warm to my task, I want to share a technical point. All the distinguished Shabbatot of the year, which have no special Torah reading, but do have a designated Haftorah, get their name from a word in the haftorah, usually towards the beginning. Hence, Shabbat Shuva, Shabbat Chazon, Shabbat Nachamu get their name from the first significant word in the haftorah. This week the famous verse is towards the end: I will send you Eliyahu the prophet, before the great (gadol) and awesome day (Malachi 3:23). So, a technical (and boring) rabbinic type might tell you that's the answer. End of story. We can do better.
A little history is in order. Malachi, the prophet of our Haftorah, and his contemporaries, Chagai and Zecharia lived in one of the most difficult transition periods in Jewish history. They were the last prophets. They were also members of Ezra's Great Assembly. This was the moment when Judaism moved from a prophetic religion to rabbinic Judaism, dominated by rabbis voting rather than prophets communicating the word of God. It must have been very hard for these gentlemen. Previously they pronounced the message of God expecting total adherence and awe, but now they just had one vote out of 120. There is speculation that Malachi, which means 'My messenger', was not his real name, but that he is a generic final messenger from God tasked with this melancholy role of turning off the lights on that period of human history. With that in mind let's look at this week's haftorah which closes the era of direct communication from God.
Malachi begins (3:4-5) with a promise (the offerings will continue in the Holy Temple), and a warning (but the Jews must resist the temptations of corrupt behavior). But then comes, perhaps the most important and inspiring prophecy ever voiced: For I am the Lord, Who never changes, and you are the Children of Ya'akov, who never cease (verse 6). The modes of our religion must change from prophecy to rabbinics, but our relationship with God has not and never will change. There will be good times and bad, but never forget that 'a day is being prepared when they shall again be my treasured possession, and I will be tender to them as a parent is tender to a child (verse 17).' Our only job during these intervening millennia is 'remain mindful of the Torah of My servant Moshe, whom I charged at Mt. Sinai with My laws and rules for all Israel (verse 22).' That's it, observe My Torah and we'll meet again some sunny day. In other words, write in calm letters 'Don't Panic', know where your towel is and keep the Torah.
The Sfat Emet (second Gerer Rebbe, 1847-1905) wants to know when are we most cognizant of this promise and expectation? He reasonably assumes that it's towards the end of every Shabbat. After all, it's at Mincha, Shabbat afternoon, when we remind ourselves that, 'You are One, You Name is One, and who is like Your People Israel, a unique nation upon earth?' We are accessing that national memory of the promises the great prophets, like Malachi, made to our ancestors of that future complete redemption. The Rebbe further explains that our Shabbatot actually combine to make an annual cycle of Sabbaths, and that this cycle is based on the annual holiday sequence. Pesach, of course, is the holiday of redemption and most authorities assume that the future redemption will also coincide with this Chag. Therefore, the Rebbe says, 'This Shabbat gathers all the spiritual energy of all the fifty Shabbatot of the year to help bring the redemption at this propitious time (Shabbat Hagadol, 5632).' That's pretty great!
Malachi wants us to know that prophecy is only going on hiatus for this period. The direct connection to God which prophecy represents will one day return. The facilitator for this reconciliation will be Eliyahu, because according to tradition he ascended to heaven without dying (2 Melachim 2:11). So, the greatness of the event will be on many levels. This future 'great and awesome day' will be amazing because it will usher in an era which will be a brand-new period of God's revelation on earth, but it will be based on the ancient covenants forged by our forebears.
So, this Shabbat when you think back over all the Shabbatot of the last year, and contemplate the potential for this Pesach ushering in the geula shleima, the total redemption we all anticipate, I hope you'll experience some of the awe Malachi had in mind. Just setting aside this Shabbat for considering all these possibilities makes it The Great One.