Musings by an MO (minimally observant) small town Jew.
The last Shabbat before the start of Pesach is referred to as Shabbat HaGadol – the “Big” or “Great” Shabbat. Other than the fact that it is the last Shabbat before Pesach and rabbis have traditionally given lengthy and detailed sermons on the laws of Pesach, what is it that makes this Shabbat so great?
We have to go back to the preparations for the first, the real, Passover eve Seder.
In Exodus 12:1-6 we read the following:
1. And the Lord spoke to Moses and Aaron in the land of Egypt saying: 2. “This month (i.e. Nissan) shall be unto you the beginning of months; it shall be the first month of the year to you. 3. Speak you unto all the congregation of Israel, saying: In the tenth day of this month they shall take to them every man a lamb according to their father’s houses, a lamb for a household; 4. And if the household be too little for a lamb, then shall he and his neighbour next unto his house take one according to the number of the souls; according to every man’s eating ye shall make your count for the lamb. 5. Your lamb shall be without blemish; a male of the first year; ye shall take it from the sheep, or from the goats; 6. And ye shall keep it until the fourteenth day of the same month; and the whole assembly of the congregation of Israel shall kill it at dusk”.
This passage contains the first commandment given to the Jewish people as a whole (calendar) and the first related to Passover. Traditionally, it is considered that that particular tenth of Nissan fell out on a Shabbat. Thus Shabbat HaGadol became HaGadol because of the implications to be derived from the taking of the lamb on that day in preparation for its killing four days later on the fourteenth, erev Pesach.
So, what is it about the taking of a lamb which is of any significance?
It is our tradition that lambs were gods in ancient Egypt. There seems, as far as I have been able to discover, two locations for the origin of this idea in Jewish sources. You will recall that when Joseph reunites with his brothers he tells them to say to Pharaoh that they are herders. Joseph says that they should say this because herders were an abomination to the Egyptians, the obvious plan being to induce Pharaoh to give the Israelites a separate and distinct area in which to live. This separation, clearly, was intended to foster the growth of the family into a distinct people.
So this forms one source for the concept that Egyptians treated sheep and goats differently from other animals and their herders different from others.
The second source is from Onkelos — traditionally thought to be a convert to Judaism who translated the Torah into ancient Aramaic and whose translation is given much weight in trying to understand the Torah. In fact, it is treated as an interpretive commentary and can be found along side the Hebrew in many publications of the Torah.
When Joseph recognizes his brothers in parasha Miketz, he provides a meal for them without having revealed himself. About that meal, the standard Hertz translation of the Hebrew says:
43:32 And they set for him by himself and for them by themselves, and for the Egyptians, that did eat with him, by themselves; because the Egyptians might not eat bread with the Hebrews; for that is an abomination unto the Egyptians.
An English translation of the way Onkelos translates that same section into Aramaic is:
… they set for him alone, and for them alone, and for the Egyptians who ate with him, alone. For the Egyptians might not eat bread with the Hebrews, because the animals that the Egyptians worshipped, the Hebrews did eat.
This, then, is the second source for the idea that the lamb taken by the Israelites on the 10th of Nissan – the day which was thereby to become Shabbat HaGadol, the big, great or awesome Shabbat – was an Egyptian god.
Let’s look at this in the context of its times. This command, among the first of the commands to the people as a whole, came after there had been 9 plagues, in the latter 6 of which there had been an unnatural, miraculous, separation of the Israelites from the Egyptians. The first three plagues affected all – the next 6 only affected the Egyptians. And of course, the 10th would exclude from its impact those (and only those) Israelites who had chosen to follow the commandments for the first Seder.
So, it is reasonable to assume that the Egyptians were “some put out” by the time Nissan came around. They had had to suffer from a river which turned to blood, frogs, gnats, other nasty bugs or beasts, cattle disease, boils and chilblains, hail, locusts and darkness. As I mentioned, only the first three affected the Israelites, the latter 6 did not affect the Israelites at all.
In the midst, then, of a people who were, however deservedly, certainly understandably upset and looking for a scapegoat, the Israelites were ordered to disgrace the Egyptian gods. This was obviously not likely to endear the Israelites to the Egyptians.
Also, we need to remember that the Israelites had been slaves for generations. They had a slave mentality. This was what, so we are told, led to the Golden Calf and their repeated whining in the desert that they had been better off in Egypt. It is what led, ultimately, to that generation’s being condemned to die in the desert as being undeserving of the Land of Israel.
In this context what a wonder it is that any of them did what they were bidden to do! What a wonder it is that they took the word of Moses as to what he had been told! What a wonder it is that they were prepared to risk all in these circumstances!
In that they determined to risk life and limb, in that they chose to place their faith in what their leader told them to do, in that they listened to a message the validity of which they could not prove, the ancient Israelites made their preparation on that Shabbat, the Shabbat we know as Shabbat HaGadol into a lesson for us all.
They chose freedom over slavery at huge risk. They chose faith over reality in uncertainty. They chose. They acted. Those two things, choosing and acting, made them, and they day on which they did them, and regardless of what happened later, truly great.
It is so easy to see the Pesach story as one in which the Israelites were passive recipients only. God did all the heavy lifting, Moses being only the mouthpiece. There were no sacrifices by the Israelites necessary to generate the plagues – with one exception. They had to sacrifice (and eat) the lamb and identify themselves as Israelites and God-worshippers by painting their doorposts with the lamb’s blood before the 10th and final plague could take place.
This story teaches us that however passive the Israelites may have been for most of the process, the climax could not have happened without their choice, their action, their faith, their risk.
There is for me an echo in the Seder as we practice it today of the risks the ancient Israelites took in the week leading to Pesach. This is when, after the Birkat HaMazon, the grace after the meal, is finished and before the resumption of the Hallel, we stand and somebody opens the door and we call on Heaven to bring down rage and fury against our enemies. This practice apparently developed in the Middle Ages when the conjunction of Easter and Pesach made this season a very dangerous one for Jews.
Think of the confidence, the strength, the faith that this practice called for when newly developed. First one opens the door – foregoing the most natural and probably most effective of defences. Then one calls on Heaven to bring down its wrath and fury on those who were only too ready to find an excuse to attack the Jews.
How much more effectively can one say to the world than did the ancient Israelites in Egypt and the Jews of Medieval Europe: I’m here. I have faith. I believe. I will do!
For all that Israel is still challenged and deprived of peace, for all that there is still antisemitism in the world, for all that our legitimacy and rights are denied by some, we are living in A, if not THE, Golden Age for Jews. Yet especially now, in this era, in this place, we are called upon by the Seder and the duty to prepare for it. We are called upon to choose. We are called upon to decide. We are called upon to act – and all of this without absolute proof.
We are called upon, not merely to call ourselves Jews, but to show ourselves to be Jewish. We are not to be anonymous. We are not to glide unseen, unheard, unnoticed through the world. We are not to be, in the words of Jonathan Safran Foer, “Seinfeld Jews”.
No, we are called upon to be a light unto the nations. We are called upon to stand up. We are called upon to deny the validity of what is wrong. We are called upon to affirm what is right and we are called upon to admit that there are greater truths in this world than can be demonstrated by pure reason or pure science.
And what if it simply is not true that sheep were treated as gods in Ancient Egypt? What if there is only scant evidence that the plagues actually happened? What if archaeologists cannot prove the Exodus? What if science cannot prove the existence of God?
Let me quote from and add to a famous poem by Rudyard Kipling, appropriately for our purposes called “If”. Kipling wrote in his first and last stanzas:
If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you;
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowances for their doubting too;
If you can wait and not be tired of waiting,
Or, being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or, being hated, don’t give way to hating,
And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise;…
If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with kings – nor lose the common touch;
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you;
If all men count with you, but none too much;
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With six second’s worth of distance run –
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it
And – what is more – you’ll be a Man my son!
I’d like to add the following, asking you to excuse my attempt at 19th century idiom:
And if you can be true to your heritage
With no current sign from Heaven;
If truth and honesty remain attractive
Despite the calls of ease,
If the depths of your religion’s teachings
Are more significant to you than shallow facts;
Then not only Earth is yours, but also Heaven, too.
You’ll not only be a Man, my son, but more, a Jew.
As we move from Shabbat HaGadol to the Seders and beyond, let us endeavour to find the strength to commit, the strength to choose, the strength to do as our forebears did. Let us, each to our own degree and in our own way, stand up, choose, act. To be Jewish is to do Jewish.