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Parashat Metzora – Shabbat Hagadol 5782

April 8, 2022

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Turning Our Hearts Towards Each Other at the Seder
A D’var Torah for Parashat Metzora – Shabbat Hagadol
By Rabbi Robert Scheinberg

Why is the Shabbat before Passover called Shabbat HaGadol – the “great Sabbath”? One of the best known explanations is presented by the Levush (OH 430:1), among other sources: It refers to the concluding lines from the Haftarah designated for Shabbat Hagadol, taken from the conclusion of the book of Malachi: “Lo, I will send the prophet Elijah to you before the coming of the awesome [Hebrew: hagadol], fearful day of Adonai. He [Elijah] shall turn the hearts of parents toward children, and the hearts of children toward parents….” (3:23-24)

The prophet Malachi uses the word hagadol, “great” or “awesome,” to refer to the future day when the Prophet Elijah would herald the Messianic Era. Referring to Elijah at this time of year also evokes the Passover Seder, when we open the door for Elijah and invite him as a spiritual guest at our table, even pouring a cup of wine for him.

The Passover Seder is the classic intergenerational Jewish gathering, and even in the Torah, the Passover evening meal is described as an opportunity for the younger generation to ask questions to the older generation. (Exodus 12:26) The words from the Haftarah have been enacted at Seders through the ages, as the Prophet Elijah’s annual visits encourage the parents and children to turn their hearts towards each other.

Thinking of those famous words from this week’s Haftarah, I am reminded of this illustration from one of the first Haggadot to be published in the United States, published in Chicago in 1879. It’s a picture of a family of six at their Passover Seder table, with the four sons appearing to correspond to the Four Sons described in the Haggadah.

This drawing has been frequently analyzed for how it reflects some Jewish communal concerns in the United States in the late 1800’s. (The discussion below is adapted from that found in Yosef Yerushalmi’s Haggadah and History (JPS, 1975) and Noam Zion and David Dishon’s A Different Night (Hartman, 1997).  The mother and father are facing forward, dressed in traditional clothing that marks them as immigrants. To the mother’s right is the wise son (the only son whose head is covered), looking down at his book, seemingly detached from the rest of the family. The son at the end of the table, who appears to be the wicked son, leans back in his chair, providing the only motion in the picture. He’s dressed more stylishly than his parents or his wise brother; he’s also smoking — often a symbol of rebellion, especially in that era. His finger is pointing at the “traditional” side of the family, in what could be a gesture evoking the wicked son’s line: Mah ha-avodah ha-zot lakhem? “What does this service mean to you?”

The simple son, and the son who does not know how to ask, by process of elimination, are the two younger sons who are facing away from us. It is not even clear which one is which, but we can see that they are bareheaded and dressed in dark clothes, like the wicked son, and they are turned towards him rather than towards their parents. The parents are the only ones looking straight ahead at the viewer, as if to say: What happened to our idyllic Jewish family in this new land? Where is the respect for our traditions?

This artist seems to associate wickedness with assimilation into American society. Nearly 150 years later, we might draw this gathering differently. Pluralistic institutions like AJR hold that sometimes it’s appropriate for traditions to be challenged, and sometimes those who do that challenging get labeled as the “wicked child,” even though they regard themselves not as rebels seeking to dismantle the tradition or to flee from it, but as builders, seeking to create a Judaism that is more just, inclusive, and meaningful. Of course, such challenges are most effective when they are undertaken with respect and love.

May our Seders this year be meaningful opportunities for sharing and transmission of heritage across the generations, fulfilling the prophet Malachi’s prophecy that hearts of parents and children be turned to each other.
Rabbi Robert Scheinberg, Ph.D., is the Interim Rabbi in Residence at the Academy for Jewish Religion, where he teaches courses in Jewish Liturgy, as well as the Rabbi of the United Synagogue of Hoboken. Rabbi Scheinberg was a member of the editorial committees for Mahzor Lev Shalem and Siddur Lev Shalem, the prayer books used in many Conservative congregations.