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Parashat Metzora-Shabbat Hagadol

April 15, 2016

by Cantor Sandy Horowitz

With all the preparations involved in getting ready for Pesah, the Shabbat preceding the holiday can tend to feel like a disruption; we know that we ought to savor the Shabbat-time, but it often feels more like something we’d rather “pass over” in our efforts to get to the first Seder on time.

But this is Shabbat Hagadol, the Great Shabbat. The very name calls to us, inviting us to stop and reflect.

One of the reasons for the name of Shabbat Hagadol comes from the Haftarah reading for this Shabbat. This is in keeping with other special Shabbatot whose names are derived from the Haftarah reading of that week (Shabbat Nahamu, Shabbat Shuva, etc.). On Shabbat Hagadol we read in Malachi 3:23: “Hinei anokhi sholeah lakhem et Eliya hanavi lifnei bo yom Adonai hagadol vehanora…”  (“Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and awesome day of the Lord”). The greatness of the day, the coming of the messianic age of which this speaks, has parallels to the greatness of the day when the Israelites will leave Egypt as God’s free people. Each refers to the beginning of something new, great and unknown; one is presumed to be at the end of our days; the other signifies the beginning of our lives as a people.

Another explanation for the name of Shabbat Hagadol: In Exodus 12:3 God tells Moses, “Speak to the entire community of Israel, saying, on the tenth of this month, let each one take a lamb for each parental home, a lamb for each household.” The people are commanded to keep the lamb until the evening of the 14th of the month, at which time they are to slaughter it, use the blood to mark their homes, and roast and eat it. (Exodus 12:6 -7) According to the Talmud, the day of the Exodus when Moses led the people out of Egypt, the 15th of Nissan, was a Thursday, so that the day of the taking of the lamb, the 10th, would have been on Shabbat (Shabbath 87b).

The taking in of the sacrificial lamb has particular resonance in the context of Egyptian culture, where it was believed that the lamb was an object of worship. The Israelites, having lived among the Egyptians for so long, would likely have been comfortable with the notion of idol-worship; and so the commandment to slaughter the lamb might have been intended as a commandment to take a stand as non-Egyptians, as God’s people. Well before receiving the law at Sinai, here was their first mitzvah, their first active, conscious participation in a commandment from God. Although the actual redemption of the Jewish people would begin with the departure from Egypt, they were already taking part in becoming a redeemed people as soon as they took in their lambs and kept them for sacrifice.

Imagine what those four days might have been like for our ancestors, from the 10th of Nissan when they obtained their sacrificial animals until the 14th, the night they slaughtered their lamb, ate it, and got ready to leave Egypt for good. Just as we scramble to be ready in time for our first Seder — the commemoration of that night — surely their preparations were all the more hectic and hurried. Did they make lists? Did they argue about what to leave behind and what to bring? Everything had to be done by the time they sat down to eat their final meal.

Meanwhile, in the days leading up to that final meal the lamb stood awaiting its fate, a living, bleating reminder to the Israelite people of the tremendous significance of their pending journey.

Shabbat Hagadol is our lamb. In the midst of all the material preparations for Passover, Shabbat Hagadol is our opportunity for spiritual preparation, as we reflect on the significance for each of us, in our time, of the upcoming holiday of liberation.


Cantor Sandy Horowitz is the cantor of Adas Emuno in Leonia, NJ