By Rabbi James Gordon,Guest Torah Columnist
Torah Portion: Tzav (Leviticus 6:1−8:36)
It is not the 40th, the 42nd, nor is it the 45th President of the United States that deserves the credit (or blame) for the mantra: “Make America Great Again!”
It is the Almighty.
We learn this from the special name given to this Shabbat and the reasons behind it.
Known as Shabbat HaGadol (or in some neighborhoods – Shabbos HaGodol), “the Great Sabbath” is the name attributed to the Shabbat that immediately precedes Pesach.
Rabbi Eliyahu Kitov in his monumental work Sefer HaToda-ah (The Book of Our Heritage) provides a digest of some of the many reasons provided by ChaZa”L (Our Sages of Blessed Memory) why this Sabbath has earned this elevated stature. Here are some of the reasons:
- To this very day, there is a practice in many communities, that the most prominent rabbis deliver a special Shabbat D’rasha (sermon) highlighting the numerous halakhot (laws) dealing with the preparation for and observance of Pesach. Because of the serious nature of these laws and their quantitative abundance, these D’rashot can be lengthy. Hence, the term Gadol – “Great” in content and length. (In fact, in some communities – in days of yore – the only Shabbat D’rashot that the Rav delivered were on Shabbat Shuva [between Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur] and Shabbat HaGadol.)
- According to some nusachs (prayer liturgies) extra piyutim (liturgical poems) are incorporated into the Shabbat service. Sections of the Haggada are also reviewed in preparation for the S’darim. Hence, the enhanced davening and learning provides reason to upgrade the status of this Shabbat to Gadol (Great).
- The special Haftarah that we read ends with the following declaration regarding Messianic times: Hineh Anokhi sholeach lakhem et Eliya HaNavih lifnei bo yom HaShem HaGadol v’HaNora. “Behold I will send you Elijah the Prophet before the arrival of the Great and awesome day of the Almighty” (Malakhi 4:23).
Spiritually, here are my top three reasons (also included in Sefer HaToda-ah) why this Sabbath has truly earned the name of Shabbat HaGadol:
- While Midrashic literature reports that – at the beginning of the slavery, Moses convinced Pharaoh that in order to ensure optimal productivity his slaves needed one day a week to rest, and that that day should be Shabbat – once the Israelites recited Havdala, it was back to hard labor. However on the Shabbat immediately before the Exodus (which happened to be 10 Nisan) the Almighty assured the Israelites that they did not have to return to work at the end of the day. In effect, that Motzaei Shabbat marked the first M’lava Malka in Jewish history – a time to celebrate their emancipation.
- The Torah (Exodus 20:11 & Deuteronomy 5:15) provides two reasons why we are commanded to observe the Sabbath: (1) In commemoration of the Kadosh Barukh Hu (KB”H) creating the world in six days and resting on the seventh; and (2) because we were slaves in Egypt who were liberated by the Almighty. During the slavery the Israelites observed the Sabbath for the first reason only. Knowing that the slavery (in effect) was over and Y’tziat Mitzrayim was less than a week away, the Israelites now (i.e., beginning on the first Shabbat HaGadol in history) incorporated – for the first time during their 200+ year slavery – the second reason as well for observing Shabbat.
- In my opinion, the most important spiritual reason why the Sabbath immediately before Pesach is designated as Shabbat HaGadol, is that the Israelites, for the first time since the enslavement, were not afraid of their Egyptian masters. They expressed this fearlessness by following the Almighty’s command to take an Egyptian deity (a lamb) tying it to a bedpost and setting it aside to be sacrificed four days later. They were assured that any Egyptian who tried to stop them would receive a Divine punishment.
While Parashat Tzav oftentimes coincides with Shabbat HaGadol (i.e., on non-leap years), such is not always the case (i.e., on leap years). In Tzav (Leviticus 6:21) we read about two major principles regarding the kashering of metal vessels (a process known as Hagalat Kelim). Unlike earthenware which cannot be kashered, with copper and other metallic vessels we are taught that through Hagalat Kelim we can purge the vessel clean of all those food particles that remain in it. (Some rabbis will include an explanation of these intricate halakhot in their Shabbat HaGadol D’rasha.)
On the tenth day of Nisan – the Shabbat that immediately preceded the first Pesach in our rich history – the Almighty told His most valuable “kelim” (vessels) to purge themselves of their slave mentality. In order to be a people that would later formally accept the Torah and its obligatory Mitzvot as well as settle in Eretz Yisrael (the Holy Land), they would need to come to the realization that the only Master we have is the Almighty. Rather than totally forgetting the oppression they suffered in Egypt, B’nei Yisrael were told to transform their horrific memories into becoming more caring, empathetic human beings. On their final Sabbath in Egypt, the Israelites were told to revive the glory days of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs. In essence on that first Shabbat HaGadol in Jewish history, HaShem told B’nei Yisrael – and all future generations: “Make Shabbat and Judaism Great Again!”
Not only is this D’var Torah non-partisan in the political sense – as US Presidents from both major parties have used the above-referenced mantra – it is also non-partisan religiously as well. It is intended for all Jews – of every stream – to take to heart. Let us purge ourselves of the Chametz (according to Kabbala – the sins caused by our Yetzer HaRa/Evil Inclination), start fresh and dedicate every Shabbat and each and every day of the week to making Judaism – even Greater.
Rabbi James M. Gordon teaches Jewish Business Ethics at the Hebrew Theological College – Touro University.