By Rabbi Berel Wein
The Shabbat that immediately precedes the holiday of Passover carries with it the title of being Shabbat Hagadol – the great and exalted Shabbat. There are many explanations advanced as to why this Shabbat should merit that special title. The one most often advanced is that the tenth day of Nissan – the day when the actual redemption from Egypt began by the Jews taking the paschal lamb into their possession – fell on the Shabbat before the actual exit from Egypt.
This traditional explanation has always been found somewhat wanting and many other explanations have been advanced over the centuries. It is said that once the door has been opened for the great, then even the small may also enter. Therefore I am taking advantage of this opportunity to offer my own idea regarding Shabbat Hagadol.
The rabbis taught us that every generation has people who expound ideas on Torah subjects that are relative to the issues and mindset of that particular generation and environment. In fact, the task of the Torah scholar and communal leader is to show and teach the relevance of the eternal Torah to the particular circumstances and events of the present time.
I feel that Shabbat Hagadol has special significance and importance to our current situation in the general and Jewish worlds. Shabbat Hagadol represents the prelude to redemption, the beginning of the process, the bumpy ride that comes before the smooth highway and the ultimate goal of freedom, liberty, security and spiritual attainment.
I am not a kabbalist or philosopher. I would not hazard to say that this is the immediate pre-messianic time or that it is not. Far greater people than I are involved in such discussions, which until now have come to no resolution. But I do feel that any rational observer of the Jewish world currently senses a volatility….. a feeling of change that dominates and makes obsolete old programs and policies.
After over a millennia of teeming Jewish life, scholarship and community on the European continent, it is now obvious to all that as far as Jews are concerned, Europe is done. The State of Israel, surrounded by enemies, violence, political turmoil and engulfed in its own internal divisions and societal conflicts, thrives and grows.
It is interesting and perhaps even disturbing to note that the current diplomatic conflict between Israel and the United States administration occupies more media space and comment then any other current topic. It is ludicrous to think that our little state, the size of New Jersey and with a population approximately perhaps equaling that of New York City should argue on equal terms with the country of the size, strength and population of the United States of America.
But that is exactly what is happening before our eyes. Europe, the United States, the Moslem world, are all engaged in momentous sociological, diplomatic and technological change. Our world is one that would be completely unrecognizable to the generation of our great grandparents. This great wave of change, of uncertainty and danger, of fear and optimism combined, is the Shabbat Hagadol of our current generation. It is the prelude to better times leading to Jewish and human redemption.
I think that all sections of the Jewish world recognize this fact. Some sections react to it by redoubling their efforts to hold onto the past, sanctifying the bathwater and not only the baby. Others wish to plunge headlong into the future, but because events and consequences are unforeseen, their policies and struggles may in the end tend to be meaningless.
Shabbat Hagadol should serve as a stabilizing rudder in the rough seas that we sail upon. For Shabbat, in all of its greatness, serves to face forward and yet look back at one and the same time. It ends the week and begins the week for us. That is why it is hagadol – great beyond all days and holy beyond all ordinary concepts.
It begins the process of redemption within all of us and points towards the ultimate deliverance of Israel and of all of humankind. Without the passage through Shabbat Hagadol there can be no Passover. For the achievement of freedom and liberty, of holiness and purpose, of sanctity and uniqueness is a process and not an instantaneous sudden event.
We are in the midst of such a process that forces us to rethink our past and to somehow chart a course of action, thought and belief for our future. The holiday of Passover, which will be soon upon us, will give us time and opportunity to reflect on what Shabbat Hagadol has taught us. There is no greater “greatness” than being realistic while anticipating miraculous events.
We shall yet live to see that “as in the past days of the Exodus from Egypt, so shall I show you miracles once again.”
Rabbi Berel Wein is the founder and director of the Destiny Foundation. For over 20 years, he has been identified with the popularization of Jewish history through lectures, more than 1000 audiotapes, books, seminars, educational tours and, most recently documentary films. He has authored five Jewish history books. His newest book is The Oral Law of Sinai. He is a member of the Illinois Bar Association and lives and teaches in Jerusalem.