The Great Shabbat before Pesach
Shabbat Hagadol, “the great Shabbat”, is the name given to the Shabbat before Pesach, receiving that name perhaps because of the greatness of the festival. Pesach celebrates our redemption from Egypt and the beginning of our national consciousness. Pesach becomes the seminal event for us – our shared experience of slavery, of freedom, of service to God. Our leaving the oppression of Egypt is the event that more than any other gives the rationale for our mitzvot, especially those concerned with doing right by others.
Other reasons for calling this Shabbat “hagadol” have been given: it was just before Pesach that we boldy – and some say miraculously – took the lamb for the sacrifice from our Egyptian slave masters without being molested, a sign of our impending liberation; others say it may be called great in that it is the day that the rabbi gave a particularly long sermon on the laws and traditions of Pesach. One other suggestion is that the special haftarah reading from the prophet Malachi speaks of the “great day” of the Lord on which the Messiah will appear.
Pesach, with its great theme of redemption in the past naturally becomes the setting for the messianic redemption of the future. We set a cup of wine on our table for Elijah who heralds the coming of the messiah; this cup of wine is for the unfulfilled fifth promise of redemption “I will take you into the land”, mentioned in Exodus 6:7-8 (the series of promises of redemption forms the core text for the four cups of wine that we drink on Seder night.) Our understanding of redemption requires the return of the people of Israel to the land of Israel – that story forms the basis of the daily amida, our most important prayer, said 5 times a day (including quietly and with public repetition.) It is the reason that in the prayer for the State of Israel most congregations include the words “Israel, the beginning of the flowering of our redemption.”
This Shabbat indeed is great – it gives us the opportunity to think about all the traditions we have in preparation for Pesach, from cleaning our homes of leaven, to making contributions to those in need, to reflecting on our incredible journey of redemption we have taken as a people, from leaving Egypt to rebuilding Israel. Shabbat HaGadol and the festival of Pesach present us the great challenge of what we mean by redemption. When we open up the door for Elijah these Seder nights, when we read the words of the haggadah that challenge us to think of a better future, let us take some time around our tables discussing not just our visions of redemption but concrete ways of achieving them.