What’s so Gadol about this Shabbos anyway?

The Shabbos before Pesach is enigmatically called Shabbat HaGadol, the Great Shabbos.  The Shulchan Aruch says that it’s called Shabbat HaGadol because of the Neis Hagadol, the great miracle, that happened on it. Several days before the first Korban Pesach (sacrifice) the Jewish people were commanded to select their lamb and bring it into the house. If you do the calendar math, it works out that that year, the day they had to select the animal was Shabbat. And even though the lamb was a sacred animal to the Egyptians, none of them protested as the Jewish people triumphantly and publicly made their selections and began that part of the preparations for the sacrifice. The fact that the Jewish people did that unmolested was a miracle and, bam, Shabbat Hagadol.

It’s a bit weird though because, ostensibly, the miracle has nothing to do with Shabbos, per se. It would make more sense if this miracle were noted somehow each year three days before Passover in some way. That year it happened to be Shabbos, but it’s not a Shabbos miracle. So why memorialize it on Shabbos?

There is another oddity worth noting. The haftorah seems to be very peculiar. Usually on a special Shabbos the haftorah reading is a selection from Navi (the prophets section of bible) that is somehow thematically connected to that time of year. If it’s Erev Rosh Chodesh, we read a story about something that happened on Erev Rosh Chodesh. If it’s Chanukkah, we read something that mentions oil and menorah, and so forth. At first glance the only connection between this week’s selection from Malachi and “Shabbat HaGadol” is that one verse uses the word HaGadol – 3:23 “Behold I will send you Eliyahu HaNavi לפני בוא יום ה הגדול והנורא before the coming of the great and awesome day of Hashem.” But it would be super unsatisfying if the only reason to read this was that one of the 21 verses of the haftorah happens to use the word HaGadol. Also, my handy dandy concordance says that there are 59 “gadol”s in Navi and 44  “haGadol”s, including a pasuk in Yoel that actually uses basically the same phrase, “יום הגדול ונורא – the great and awesome day.” So there has to be some better explanation for why this is the haftorah for Shabbos Hagadol – the Shabbos before Pesach.

These pesukim in Malachi are possibly the very last words of prophecy that were ever said to the Jewish people. Malachi is one of the three prophets that spoke to the Jewish people at the beginning of the Second Temple Era. The words are recorded at the end of Trei Asar, and Malachi’s are last. And this haftorah brings us right to the end of the sefer.

For those that don’t know, the first part of the Second Temple Era seems eerily similar to the years leading up to the modern country of Israel. As the Jewish people start to return to their homeland, relatively few pioneers are willing to make the trip. The first people that come are not the most religiously inspired, but rather people looking to start over. The initial building progress in hampered by troubles with the local Arabs. The world power who controls that land gives permission to return, but then it’s enthusiasm is cooled for some time. Eventually Torah leaders start to make their way to Israel and reenergize the people and begin a revival of spiritual life. But the whole time of the Second Temple is rife with political and religious factions fighting each other for the body politic and eventually for the spiritual essence of the nation. Malachi is there at the beginning. When the building of the Second Temple was started, it  then stopped and then started again, but in an anemic and slipshod way.

The haftorah gives voice to the people at that time. Essentially, they are asking, why does G-d hate us? What did we do that was so wrong? Why are we here, but still in galus (exile)? When will the bad guys get what’s coming to them? When will this all be over? When will it finally be good?

To be honest, those are perfectly reasonable questions and I think any thinking person of faith has to ask them. (If a person were either not faithful or unthinking, the questions wouldn’t bother them, but for opposite reasons. But a thinking person of faith – that’s the sweet spot of this type existential tension!) And if I may be so bold, they seem like perfectly reasonable questions to be asking right now, in these days right before Pesach. We are doing so much work, and spending so much money, to get ready for a holiday that celebrates our freedom long ago. But here we are again. (Or still.) When WILL the bad guys get what’s coming to them? When WILL it finally be good?

So, it turns out there is a profound thematic connection between the haftorah and this very moment, if you take this season of redemption seriously. That coupled with the promise that there will be a great day of judgement – a “יום גדול ונורא — a great and awesome day of judgement,” explains why this HaGadol is our haftorah.

But I think there is at least one more connection.

The seder is a retelling of the origin story of the Jewish people. Superman was saved by his parents and escaped the destruction of Krypton. Peter Parker was bitten by a radioactive spider (or a genetically altered spider, depending which part of the Spiderverse you’re in.) Sue Storm-Richards was exposed to a should-have-been-lethal dose of Cosmic Rays and that’s how she became the Invisible Woman. Luke’s aunt and uncle were killed on Tatooine leaving the orphan even more alone. But the Jewish people’s origin story is that we were a family, finally learning to get along and love each other, finally finding prosperity. And then we were forcibly enslaved, brutally mistreated, and left with no hope for justice. And then Hashem took us to be a Treasured Nation, a Holy People.

Uniquely, the main Passover ritual takes place at home. From the earliest days this moment was created to be about family eating together and talking together about who we are and how we came to be here. Parents and children and uncles and cousins and grandparents and the family we chose – all of them together talking about these big things.

And as we are in the last days of making these plans, and getting ready to be together, our hearts are complicated knowing that in many families, these gatherings are fraught. Not all the kids may want to be there. Not all the parents are invited. Not all the uncles are un-creepy enough. But, the haftorah calls out that it won’t always be like that.

The very last verse of Malachi’s prophecy (and the very last verse of prophecy at all) are that in the days leading up to the final redemption will be moments of “והשיב לב אבות על בנים ולב בנים על אבותם — And he will turn back the hearts of fathers with their sons and the hearts of sons with their fathers.” The haftorah doesn’t just bring to us the promise of a macro-redemption for the world and the Jewish people, but even a micro-redemption for our families.

The rest of these days are so busy with polishing and vacuuming and peeling and mashing and cutting and koshering that we might not take the time to think these big thoughts. But on Shabbos, we can’t do any of that, so we get to think big thoughts – justice, and family, and dream of time that it will finally be good.  And we have the perfect haftorah to help us with that.

About the Author
Rabbi Mordechai Soskil has been teaching Torah for more than 20 years. Currently he is the Director of Judaic Studies at Beth Tfiloh Dahan Community School. He is also the author of a highly regarded book on faith and hashkafa titled "Questions Obnoxious Jewish Teenagers Ask." He and his wife Allison have 6 children that range from Awesome to Fantastic. And now four precious granddaughters.
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