Shabbat HaGadol means The Great Shabbat. It is the name given to the Shabbat immediately prior to Pesach. There are two basic components to Shabbat HaGadol. The first is the special haftarah reading from the prophet Malachi, in which he refers to Elijah the prophet who will herald the coming of the messiah. Malachi speaks of the future day in which the hearts of children will be turned toward their parents and parents to their children. Overall, this reading suggests that the messianic era requires healing within families, within society and between human and God. These healings form the basis of the ultimate redemption and should also form the theme of our discussions at the Seder which this year begins as Shabbat ends. The second aspect of Shabbat HaGadol is to focus on the teachings of Pesach; in ancient times this concerned the laws of chametz (which had to be dealt with last week to give us time to clean our homes); in contemporary times we should as well consider ways to make our Seder night more meaningful.
The Haggadah, which is a highly constructed narration of the events of the story of Pesach, is meant to be the first, not the last, word of how we commemorate this most important festival. That we will narrate the story of Pesach from one generation to the other is taught four times in the Torah (the basis of the “four children” in the Haggadah.) In ancient Temple times, the story telling would have been based in the narrative from the book of Exodus, and perhaps more fluid in style. With the destruction of the Temple, the Pesach offering ceased (it is now remembered by the shank bone on the Seder plate). With the ensuing exile, the rabbis responded to the need to establish parameters for the telling of the Pesach story. These parameters have ensured that 2,000 years since the destruction of the Second Temple and 3,300 years since the Exodus from Egypt, we the Jewish people maintain the memory of Pesach and as importantly adhere to its central messages.
In Mishnah Pesachim, which forms the backdrop for the rabbinical retelling of the story of Pesach, the rabbis established certain patterns on which we must focus Seder night. It is our duty to expand upon the themes of Seder night in a creative, engaging manner.
We open with a reference to matzah, the bread of affliction, symbolizing the oppression we survived. As we begin each Seder night reciting “let all who are hungry come and eat” we must remember to respond to the needs of the hungry among us (a donation to Mazon, a Jewish response to hunger, is one of the best ways to ensure our words are not hollow; each year Mazon has a special Pesach appeal)
Overall, the story takes us on a journey from degradation to exaltation. We begin the evening reflecting on two types of degradation: the physical degradation of slavery and the spiritual degradation of idolatry. We can expand on this theme by discussing contemporary forms of physical and spiritual degradation, how these forms of oppression differ, and how we can best overcome them.
Eventually, as we take the story to the recitation of the plagues and the singing of Dayenu we come to the place of exaltation: singing songs of thanksgiving in praise of God, the source of all life. At Dayenu it is appropriate to consider the many things in each of our lives for which we can be grateful. After dinner, when it comes time for the cup of Elijah, each of us can help fill the cup with some wine from our own glass, at the same time contributing an idea of how we can help bring redemption to our world.
This Shabbat HaGadol it is appropriate to recall the messianic message of Pesach. Each of us should familiarize ourselves not just with the original story of Pesach as told in Exodus 1–15, but also its central themes highlighted by the Haggadah. This great Shabbat reminds us of the great message of Pesach: just as we became free, so must we work for the freedom of every human being, in both the physical and spiritual sense. While we should express gratitude for every blessing we have, we must also focus on all the work still in front of us to bring healing to this world. It may just be that Elijah, about whom we hear in the words of Malachi, will make an appearance heralding redemption later that night as we celebrate Pesach. His appearance and the coming of the messianic age of healing depend upon our intention and effort.