by Rabbi David Steinhardt
April 13, 2019
This is Shabbat HaGadol, the Great Shabbat. This is the Sabbath before Pesach. Its very name evokes something special. Shabbat HaGadol will always be such in the eyes and hearts of our bat mitzvah, Brooke, and her family.
Why is it called Shabbat HaGadol? The traditions give a number of different reasons. I’d like to focus on a few of them.
First, in the Torah God commands us to prepare a lamb to sacrifice for the great day of redemption that would come in four days. The date of that commandment was the10th day of Nisan and it was Shabbat. Four days later – on the 14th of Nisan was the day of the first Pesach.
Here’s a midrash. The people tied lambs to their beds. The Egyptians worshipped the lamb, and when they saw this some tried to scream in anger. But their voices were muted by God, and the Egyptians’ first–born sons began to rebel against the Egyptian authorities. They wanted the Jews to be set free. A rebellion began on this day. The Hebrew slaves did not go back to work after that, and so the Shabbat day prior to the date of the Pesach sacrifice was HaGadol.
It was said that there were two times a year that a rabbi would speak in shul. Rabbis were speaking and teaching all week long. On Shabbat they didn’t speak. But this Shabbat they had to teach, and they taught the extensive laws concerning Pesach. You were in shul a long time, thus it was Shabbat HaGadol.
Finally, and I believe most importantly, the name is related to the haftarah, the last of the special haftorot read before Pesach. From the last of the prophets, Malachi, we read:
“Behold I will send you Elijah (Eliyahu Hanavi) before the coming of the great and awesome day.”
“Hinei Anochi Sholeiach lachem et Eliyahu Hanavi lifnei Bo yom Adonoi, HaGadol V’Hanorah.”
Elijah comes to announce the coming of the Messiah. It is the time of the final redemption. And when the Messiah comes there will be perfection.
How is it described in the haftarah? It’s interesting.
Parents and children will be reconciled. Literally, “their hearts will be restored.” What a beautiful concept!
For some, it could be seen as children realizing the experiences that have taught and formed their parents, thus turning to them in reverence. For others, it may be about the lessons we can learn from each other.
On this day, I think about it in terms of what I will leave – or what our generation will be leaving – for our children. What responsibilities do we have for tomorrow? That may be the most important question during this season of questions!
I want to turn now to the idea that this is a Shabbat to learn in preparation for the holiday, including preparation for the Seder.
I’ve been thinking about a dimension of our culture that has to do with the interaction between generations. What do we share?
I know we share recreation. We share the experience of restaurants. We can watch sports together. I don’t think that we study or learn together enough, and I think that is a big failure.
We should share ideas. The elders have much to give those who are younger. Maybe through stories of earlier days and experiences. What happened when you were young? Who were the people that mattered? What was the world like? There are the stories that kids can tell. Stories about school and friends and imagination.
The Seder table may be a good time to do some of this.
And of course, the Seder provides a text, the Haggadah. In it, there is a story and there is so much more.
I ask you to pick up today’s Shabbat Shalom Bulletin and look at the first inside page. I want us to learn a text. It is a text from the beginning of the Haggadah that should be very familiar to most of you. And maybe some of what we learn here can be brought to your table.
“Ha Lachma Anya.”
“Behold this is the bread of affliction.”
Now I want you to enter into a different world with me. It is the world where words have meaning! And it is a world of symbols. The food we eat is our instructor for the meaning.
We hold up the matzah when we say Ha Lachma Anyya.
We break it into two for a type of emphasis.
This is matzah. Hear it crack!
I am breaking bread. I break it into two because I am inviting you to my table.
In some cultures, Jews put it into a little bag, sling it over their shoulders and walk towards the door.
Where are you going everyone asks? “I am going toward freedom,” the leader will say.
Where are you coming from? “I am coming from poverty and oppression.”
It’s a game and the game teaches us. Matzah is food and the food teaches us.
I don’t like matzah by about day three or four. It’s so plain, it’s like cardboard. But at the Seder it is rich! It is rich in flavor. It tells stories. It evokes memory.
I have a suggestion: Don’t eat any matzah until the motzi and tell me if you don’t agree.
And the game? It’s not just when we walk toward the door; it is also when we break the matzah into two! Because the bigger piece will be hidden and we give it a name. It is the afikoman and the hiding is a challenge, a fascination to learn.
More is hidden from us then we can possibly know! But we have engaged our kids. They will be searching ... for the afikomen and for answers. That is the life we want them to inherit, a life of searching for knowledge and understanding.
Ha Lachma Anya. Look at the text: This is the bread of affliction!
What is the bread of affliction? Matzah!
Why do we eat it? Most of you will say that we eat it because our ancestors did not have time to allow the dough to rise. They left Egypt B’chipazon …in a hurry.
That’s why we eat it, right? Well, that’s not what it says here.
Here it says this is the bread of affliction which our ancestors ate in the Land of Egypt. Not when they left!
The bread of affliction! Look at the language. Lachma Anaya. You know what language it is in? This is Aramaic, the common language when much of the Haggadah was written. We learn the Seder was written in pieces over time.
But Lachma Anya in Hebrew is lechem oni. Not simple to translate. It is either the bread of poverty, or it is a poor excuse for bread.
Let me share a lechem oni story.
I was 22 years old and about to enter rabbinical school. I was in Israel studying Hebrew. A few friends and I went to Sinai with a guide. In the middle of the night, the guide woke us up to get in his jeep and visit some Bedouin friends. We were invited into the tent for tea and bread.
The bread was made on an open fire. There was an upside–down wok, and there was a mixture of flour and water spilled on top. In fifteen seconds our host took a stick and flipped a piece of lechem oni. It tasted like matza … there in Sinai, the simplest possible form of bread.
But the meaning deepens.
“Kol dicvin yeiei v’yeichol.”
“Let all who are hungry come and eat!”
That’s our obligation when we have more than enough! We don’t let others go hungry. We open our homes. We must feed the homeless and those who struggle.
But the verse continues.
“Kol d’tzrich yeitei vyif sach.”
“Let all who are in need come and celebrate Passover with us.”
There are different types of hunger.
There is physical hunger, and that needs to be satisfied first.
There is spiritual hunger, and that is satiated at this table.
We learn our story. We learn what it means and what it obligates us to do!
Now we are slaves. We are always enslaved to something.
Next year may we be free. Now we are here.
Next year in Jerusalem … the symbol of autonomy and freedom and our capacity to live lives free of hatred and disgrace.
Let us study together more. Let us tell more stories. We know each other best through the stories we tell and the learning that we share.