Fivel Yedidya Glasser
Guide. Educator. Father. Proud Jew and Zionist.

Shabbat Hagadol – The Shabbat of Greatness

Leading the Climb. (Courtesy)

Our mystical tradition teaches us that all blessing flows into the world from the preceding Shabbat. What unique intentions might we have this Shabbat, leading us into the week of Passover?

This week’s Torah reading, parshat Tzav, fills in many of the technical details of how the Priests will function in the Tabernacle and Temple. The last section describes the installation of Aaron as the High Priest, and his sons to work with him. There is one hidden moment that is deeply compelling, especially in light of our proximity to Pesach, and that this is Shabbat HaGadol.

Hidden in the passage about Aaron’s installation is a clue, not in the words, rather in the cantillation marks, the music of how we publicly read the Torah. This week, we see one of only four places in the entire Torah where the “notes” to be chanted are what is called a “shalshelet”. The chant is one of the longer notes that rises and falls three times, and our Tradition teaches us that it indicates an inner struggle on behalf of the character that the note is associated with.

The first occurrence of the shalshelet is with Lot (Genesis 19:16), where he “delays” his departure from Sdom, torn possibly by abandoning his wealth, or perhaps a desire to see the city destroyed. The second time is when Eliezar, Abraham’s servant, is charged with finding a wife for Isaac. As Eliezar arrives to Nahor to seek a wife, he utters a prayer that he will succeed (Genesis 24:12). The Midrash teaches that Eliezar had a daughter that would marry Isaac if he could not find a suitable match in Nahor, so the servant was torn between his personal gain and his duty to his master. The third case is also in Genesis, and here Joseph that struggles with temptation. His refusal to Potiphar’s wife’s advances (39:8) was fraught with his inner struggle to conquer his own desire against what he knows to be right behavior.

So what is the shalshelet doing here, buried in the middle of the story of offering sacrifices in the installation ceremony of Aaron as the High Priest?

When we look carefully, it is on the second ram, the ram of inauguration, where we find the shalshelet (Leviticus 8:23). It is precisely this moment of slaughtering the ram that will formally install Aaron as High Priest. So what is the inner-struggle that warrants such a dramatic chanting? 

The Midrash in Vayikra Rabbah (11:6) reminds us that for seven days at the burning bush in the beginning of the Book of Exodus, Gd tried to convince Moses to take the job of freeing the Israelites and only on the last day did Moses agree reluctantly (“Send whoever You will send!” Exodus 4:13). The Midrash tells us that Moses will be punished for his reluctance, and it will happen when he will function as the High Priest for the first six days of inaugurating the Tabernacle, and then on the seventh and final day, he will be charged with installing his brother Aaron as High Priest. Another Midrash at the beginning of Exodus goes a step farther (Exodus Rabbah 3:17) where Gd says to Moses that he was fitting himself to be the High Priest, but since Moses refused Gd, his brother will take the position as High Priest.

In returning to our shalshelet, now we understand Moses’ internal struggle a little better. He desires to hold the leadership position of High Priest for himself, yet he knows that he must pass it on to his brother and share the leadership of the Israelites.

We often think of Moses’ initial refusal to take the mantle of leadership at the beginning of Exodus as an expression of humility. So why do we see him being punished here for his refusal? How can we understand this seeming tension between Moses’ humility and being punished for refusing Gd? We have to look more deeply at what humility really is. 

Humility is not the simple act of pushing off attention and not seeking self-aggrandizement. We learn this from when Moses himself calls himself the humblest of all people (Numbers 12:3). This is a window into what real humility could be. Real humility could even include someone declaring — in what looks like arrogance — that he is truly the humblest of all!

Let’s say that Billy is the best free-throw shooter on our basketball team, and the clock runs out at the state-championships with the score tied and we just got fouled and need to put someone in to take the shots. We would of course turn to Billy. But he just went to a class where he learned about humility and doesn’t want the spotlight. He says he’s not really that great and David should do it. Is this humility? No. It’s the opposite. I think that the humble thing for Billy to do in that moment is to step in, shoot the basket, win the game and acknowledge his exceptional skills as a Gd given gift that he worked very hard to hone. In other words, to deny one’s skills and pass over them is not real humility! To celebrate them, take responsibility to develop them, to use them for good and to acknowledge that it really comes from Gd and is not all about Billy–this is humility!

If you’re like me, you sometimes try on “humility” and devalue yourself in public so as not to feed your ego. You pass on certain opportunities and speak about yourself in a way that makes you appear to others as if you are not interested in taking the limelight or grabbing attention. This is not real humility! When we are needed, and we have skills, we are expected to use them. Humility is how we respond to our successes and victories. Is it all about us? Or are we able to share the credit? Can we honor our hard work in honing our craft, yet understand that many others have contributed to making us who we are and also share in the victory?

Perhaps Moses’ refusal at the beginning of Exodus was his own rejection of his innate leadership skills. Gd’s anger was not that he refused Gd’s request, but rather that he devalued his own potential! Gd’s response was to have him share the leadership and find joy through this. Aaron teaches Moses how to share leadership joyfully when Gd tells him that Aaron is coming to meet him with joy in his heart (Exodus 4:14). It is hard for Moses to learn this, and this is what we see in the shalshelet. Moses is learning to share leadership, and to step aside when the moment calls for it. Stepping aside, also enables others to rise to the occasion and to discover their own leadership capacity.

Perhaps this reading offers another answer to the mystery of Moses’ shocking absence from the entire Seder Night. It is nothing less than an act of literary genius of the framers of the Hagaddah to succeed in telling the story of the Exodus from Egypt without even mentioning Moses’ name! The Hagaddah, with its emphasis on each one of us experiencing the Exodus ourselves, is instructing us not to overly depend on Moses, and rather to rise to the occasion and discover our own leadership capabilities.

This year, due to the challenging reality of Covid19 and the fact that many will not be able to spend Seder Night with their families and friends as they may be used to, has created a vacuum of leadership. Many will be leading seders for the first time in their lives, and many more will be spending Seder Night on their own for the first time. It is easy to be frustrated, disappointed and even fearful of this reality. But perhaps we can see this as a moment of empowerment? Just as Moses, the central figure of the Exodus story is absent on Seder Night, thereby leaving a window of opportunity for others, are we able to step into that void, find our voice and take our role of leadership that we are deeply capable of doing?

This Shabbbat HaGadol, may we be blessed to discover our own “gadlut” or greatness, and break out of the limitations that inhibit us from stepping up. May we no longer be trapped by the inner struggle of stepping into the limelight while attempting to maintain humility. May we taste the freedom of revealing our inner Light and deeply sharing it, humbly, with our families and with ourselves.

I cannot help but quote the famous poem of Marianne Williamson, “Our Deepest Fear”:

Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate.

Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.

It is our light, not our darkness

That most frightens us.

We ask ourselves

Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?

Actually, who are you not to be?

You are a child of God.

Your playing small

Does not serve the world.

There’s nothing enlightened about shrinking

So that other people won’t feel insecure around you.

We are all meant to shine,

As children do.

We were born to make manifest

The glory of God that is within us.

It’s not just in some of us;

It’s in everyone.

And as we let our own light shine,

We unconsciously give other people permission to do the same.

As we’re liberated from our own fear,

Our presence automatically liberates others.


Shabbat Shalom and Gadol! Great Shabbes!

About the Author
Rabbi Fivel Yedidya Glasser is one of the Directors of Youth Programming at Keshet Educational Journeys. He is the former Executive Director of The Nesiya Institute, a non-profit educational program fostering meaningful dialogue and relationships between Jews from all walks of life.
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