Religious Adversity and Shabbat HaGadol

According to the fixed Jewish calendar, during a non-leap year, the reading of Parshat Tzav always falls out on the Shabbat immediately preceding the holiday of Pesach known as Shabbat HaGadol-The Great Shabbat. There are many explanations given as to why this Shabbat was bestowed the title “Great.” In his work The Book of Our Heritage, Rabbi Eliyahu Kitov explains one of the many reasons behind this unique name. He writes

Many miracles were performed for the Children of Israel on this first Shabbat Hagadol. The Torah commanded them to take their lambs and tie them to the bedpost. When they did so, their Egyptian neighbors saw this and asked: “What is the lamb for?” The children of Israel answered: “it is to be slaughtered as a Pesach sacrifice as God has commanded us.” The Egyptians, for whom the lamb was a deity, gnashed their teeth in anger but could not utter a sound in protest (The Book of Our Heritage, pg. 495).

According to Rabbi Kitov, the greatness which occurred on this Shabbat was the fact that when the Jewish people followed the command of God to take a lamb and prepare it for the Korban Pesach the Egyptians were unable to stop them. Today, some three thousand years later in remembrance of this great event, the Shabbat immediately preceding the holiday of Pesach is still referred to as Shabbat HaGadol-The Great Shabbat.

However informative the above answer is, it begs the question: With so many other great miracles surrounding the Exodus of Egypt, such as the Ten plagues and the splitting of the Sea why was it specifically the fact that the Egyptians were unable to intervene the reason why this Shabbat is bestowed with the title of “Great”? In answer to this question, Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev offers an enlightening explanation into the nature of this unique miracle. He explains that the greatness of the event was not as was first thought because of the Egyptians inability to protest, rather it was due to the strength of mind and character shown by the Jewish people when they took the lamb in the first place. He writes:

When the Jewish people fulfilled Gods command to take the lamb they did so with greatness of mind. Meaning that they did not have any dread or fear of the Egyptians…even though they planned to slaughter their “Gods” (Kedushat Levi, Vol. I pg. 300).

According to Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev, the fact that the Jewish people after centuries of enslavement in Egypt were able to tap into their inner strength and “greatness of mind” to overcome the difficulty of defying their Egyptian masters in order to follow Gods command was nothing short of miraculous.

The miracle of the Jewish people on that “Great Shabbat” long ago, also holds tremendous insight for our contemporary Avodat Hashem, the fulfilment of one’s religious obligations. In a person’s normal day to day routine, when things go as planned, there is not necessarily so much effort or thought expended upon their Avodat Hashem. For example, they awake in the morning and go to Shachrit, do some of their daily learning and then make their way to work. In the afternoon, there is Mincha, followed by Mariv in the evening and hopefully attendance at a Torah lecture or another form of Torah study. As long as their daily routines continues as it should so too their Avodat Hashem go uninterrupted. However, the real question is, how does one react when things are difficult and not as they had planned. How often when we are running late for work, have an unexpected detour, or when life as it often does throws us a curve ball, does our Avodat Hashem take a back seat in either the quantity or the quality?

The true test of a person’s character lies not in the normal and routine but rather having the “greatness of mind” in the difficult, unexpected and sometimes hostile situations that they will eventually be confronted with.

The well-known Talmudic story of the martyrdom of Rabbi Akiva at the hands of the Romans is a prime example of keeping to ones Avodat Hashem against all odds.The Talmud recounts:

When Rabbi Akiva was taken out to be executed, it was the time for the reading of the Shema, and while they combed his flesh with iron combs, he was accepting upon himself the kingship of heaven. His students said to him: “Our teacher even to this point?” He replied to them, all my days I have been troubled by the verse in the Shema “Love God your Lord with all your soul”, i.e. even if He takes your soul. When will I ever have the opportunity to fulfil this verse? Now that I have this opportunity, should I not fulfil it(Tractate Berachot 61 b.)?

Most understand this above Talmudic passage as extolling the virtue of Rabbi Akiva who even upon his death reached out to sanctify Gods name. However, there is a much deeper insight to this passage. When the Talmud states “it was the time for the reading of the Shema”, it is sharing with us the profound lesson that Rabbi Akiva upon his death did not recite the Shema in a bout of spiritual fervor and ecstasy, rather it was the time to recite the Shema and nothing not even his painful death was going to stand in the way of his daily and routine Avodat Hashem.

Similarly, some 75 years ago, Rabbi Kalonymos Kalmin Shapira the Piacezna Rebbe in the midst of ruin the Warsaw Ghetto continued to Teach Torah and encourage his followers to greater levels of Divine Service. During his weekly sermon on Parshat Shemot, January 10, 1942 he writes:

Now, while every head sickens and every heart grieves, some say that this is not the time to talk of piety, repentance, or awe- whether of this sort or that—that it is enough just to observe the simple, practical commandments. They are mistaken, for two reasons. Frist, because even now we must worship with all the means at our disposal, with every type of worship. The second reason which argues quite to the contrary-is this: Any person practicing spiritual reflection…and always looking inside himself…eventually experiences the most profound joy. After periods of introspection such as these, he begins to feel elevated…and tastes the sweetest, most rapturous essence of awe, describe in the Sabbath hymn “God I desire”. It is a supernal awe, which elevates the man(Sacred Fire, Torah From the Years of Fury 1939-1942, pg. 259-260).

To say that life in the Warsaw Ghetto in 1942 was not ideal and conducive to religious growth would be an understatement of epic proportions. However, even within the destruction and devastation, the Piacezna Rebbe like Rabbi Akiva and so many other Jews throughout our long history understood that the necessity of girding oneself, and through almost superhuman effort tapping into “greatness of mind” to encourage his followers to continue as best they could in their Avodat Hashem come what may.

Thank God, in our times we are not faced with the challenges and tribulations of the magnitudes described above. However, this only heightens our level of accountability and responsibility in the fulfilment of our religious obligations. On this Shabbat Hagadol, may we merit to take this message to heart, to follow in the footsteps of our ancestors and to uncover the “greatness of mind” within ourselves to continue to grow and develop in our connection to God and the fulfillment of our religious obligations no matter the circumstances.

The author is a Jerusalem-based rabbi and Jewish educator. He serves as a Lieutenant in the IDF reserves as a battalion rabbi, and is the author of the book “A People, A Country, A Heritage — Torah Inspiration from the Land of Israel.”

About the Author
The Author is a Jerusalem based Rabbi and Jewish Educator, and is the author of the Two Volume book "A People, A Country, A Heritage-Torah Inspiration from the Land of Israel."