Rabbi Michael Barclay
Shabbat HaGadol: A Time of Faith, Action, and Community
The Shabbat immediately preceding Passover is called “Shabbat HaGadol”, “the big Sabbath”. There is an old joke that this is because it is the Sabbath on which the rabbi typically gives an extremely long (and usually boring) sermon, making this Sabbath seem “big”. But the real reason is much older, deeper, and has significant teachings for us to embrace in the 21st century.
The first Shabbat HaGadol is described in Exodus 12:3. “…on the tenth day of this month (Nisan), each man shall take a lamb to a family, a lamb to a household. But if the household is too small for a lamb, let it share one with a neighbor who dwells nearby”. In that first year of the Exodus, the 10th of Nisan fell on a Shabbat; and so we observe this Shabbat HaGadol every year. But more importantly than just being the anniversary of our ancestors preparing for the first Passover, these few words are truly the essence of the Passover experience.
The first part of this commandment is the spiritual essence of the holiday. The Hebrews are commanded to take lambs and prepare them for slaughter with a specific purpose: as a mark of revolution. The blood that would be put on the doorposts was not actually there for God, but for our ancestors. Think about it…
As children we are often taught that the blood on the doorposts on that first Passover eve was so that God would know the Jewish homes and pass over them. But that very concept (so ingrained in us through Charlton Heston and “The Ten Commandments”) really makes no sense when we think about it. Why would an all-knowing God need blood on a door in order to know if it houses a Jewish family? Why would God possibly need a sign to be able to distinguish between His creations?
The obvious answer is that God doesn’t. The blood is not put there for God at all. It is an action of our ancestors based on their faith and is for their own spiritual development and awareness.
Consider the risks associated with putting blood on the door. If upon waking the next morning, the Egyptians had found that no one had died, we can be assured that the Egyptian soldiers would have gone to every home with a bloody door and killed the inhabitants. The blood was an action that was the mark of a revolution, and had the miracle not occurred, those revolutionaries would have been punished by the Egyptian authorities. Each family that put blood on their door was risking their very lives in the act: a demonstration of revolting against the Egyptian establishment based entirely on a faith in God.
This commandment of acquiring and preparing the lamb for sacrifice is the initial step of revolution. By occurring five days before the Passover itself, it forced our ancestors to really contemplate their upcoming revolutionary action of marking their own homes. Do they really want to risk everything, including their lives, by taking on this dangerous action of faith against the Egyptian government? The commandment happens on Shabbat HaGadol to force them to make a clear decision to act on faith. As we all know, that faith is ultimately rewarded by God; but our ancestors needed to demonstrate their faith and courage first in order to receive the benefits of the miracle…and ultimately the benefit of freedom.
This is a lesson we all need to remember today. No matter how dark the world around us seems, our personal actions of faith in God are what is initially required so that we too can benefit from Divine miracles. As we say in the High Holiday liturgy each year; God tells us that if we open the door to redemption wide enough for the head of a pin, God will then force the door open wide enough for horses to drive through. The Passover experiences teaches us, like our ancestors, to act in faith and know that God is ultimately in control. Only then can we receive the many Divine blessings and miracles.
The other deep teaching found in the Torah verse on Shabbat HaGadol is the instruction to share Passover together. No one should be forced to be alone at this holiday. If your home is large, this verse reminds us to invite others not as blessed to be with us at the Seder. If you are alone, seek out others of “small households” and come together for Passover. This is a communal holiday, and we must gather together to celebrate faith and freedom. We all need to make sure that every Jew has a home for Passover.
Ultimately, Shabbat HaGadol is a reminder of two fundamental Jewish principles: let our actions be reflective of our faith in God; and embrace each other as a spiritual community.
May we all act in faith and always take care of each other, and may we all prepare for Passover with courage, commitment, and love.
Kavannah: Do at least one action each day between now and Passover that is based on faith. Make a financial decision, take a risk in a relationship, or make a personal decision of any sort that is based on faith rather than just the intellect. Spend these few days before the holiday and make sure that every Jew you know has a place for Passover Seder. Either invite them to join you or try to find another Seder they can participate in. Make it a point to include every Jew together as we travel towards the freedom that comes with in God.
Rabbi Michael Barclay
April 7th, 2022
6th of Nisan, 5782