Shabbat HaGadol

SBy Rabbi Pam Frydman

            Today is Shabbat HaGadol, the Great Shabbat. Shabbat HaGadol receives its name from the Haftarah where the Prophet Malachi says, “Behold I send you Elijah the Prophet before the coming of the great and awesome day of the Lord.”

            The expression Shabbat HaGadol, the Great Shabbat, comes from Malachi’s words “great and awesome day of the Lord,” but, although Shabbat HaGadol is called the Great Shabbat, it is, in fact an ordinary Shabbat. We pray the regular Shabbat prayers and we read from just one Torah scroll.

            What is uniquely great about this Shabbat is not the prayers or the Torah reading. What sets this Shabbat apart from other Shabbatot is that this is a time for us to learn something about how to prepare for Passover.

            On every Shabbat and festival, a community may learn from their rabbi or another scholar. But twice a year, there is a custom that the rabbi is supposed to speak to the congregation to teach about preparing ourselves and our environment for the task at hand. These two times in the year are Shabbat HaGadol and Yom Kippur.

            On Yom Kippur, the rabbi is responsible for trying to inspire congregants to work on letting go of old patterns and moving toward forgiveness and reconciliation both within ourselves and between us and others.

            On Shabbat HaGadol, the rabbi is responsible for helping to inspire us to remove the chametz, the leaven, from our homes and our lives during the eight days of Pesach. We are supposed to put away, or give away, our bread, bagels and donuts in order to begin a diet of matzo and matzo products. Those of us who keep Pesach religiously, we know that Pesach food is, in fact, a little bit boring. Matzo is not the caviar of carbs. For many of us, matzo is plain and we need to dress it up with butter, margarine, jam, avocado or something else.

            Desserts made of matzo flour are interesting at first. But when you get to the fifth and sixth day of Pesach, eating matzo and Pesach desserts tends to bring on the Yiddishe kvetch, “oy, when can we eat real food again?”

            The same fruits and vegetables that we eat all year round are welcome on Pesach, except that Ashkenazi Jews do not eat beans or rice during Pesach. What is the point of this abstinence from certain foods? And why keep Pesach for eight days? Why not just have a little matzo at the Seder and a bagel for breakfast the next morning?

            The reason is because Pesach is actually an eight day fast during which we eat meals and snacks that leave us hungry for something that we know we are not supposed to eat until Pesach is over. We don’t actually go hungry on Pesach, but while we are eating, we are hungry for something that we have given up in order to fulfill the mitzvah of the festival of our freedom from slavery.

            But the real meaning of Pesach is not in the kitchen and the real meaning of Yom Kippur is not in fasting. The meaning of Pesach is to become free from our own inner enslavement that continues until this very moment.

            The suffering of giving up bread, bagels and donuts is not to remind us of the suffering of the Egyptians.[1] Rather, it is to remind us that we are still slaves to our habits and the world would be a better place if we could only wean ourselves off of our consumptive addictions such as throwing food scraps in the ordinary garbage instead of throwing them in the compost.

            I heard a talk this week at a meeting of the San Francisco Interfaith Council about how a thin layer of a quarter of an inch of compost placed on the soil of farmland helps to enrich that soil and increase its harvest and productivity not just during the year when the compost is added to the soil, but for many years after that. I learned that people who handle trash and waste products in cities all over the world come to San Francisco to learn from the method used by Recology, our compost and recycling program. I learned that if other cities and municipalities could inspire people to compost and recycle to the meager extent that we already do, it could literally save our planet.

            If you are cleaning for Passover and have questions about it, please feel free to contact me and I am happy to help, but the main thing I want to convey on this Shabbat HaGadol, the great Shabbat before Pesach, is that what we eat on Pesach is not the goal of Pesach. Rather, what we eat on Pesach is a symbol of what we need to accomplish throughout the year.

            What we really need to accomplish is to stop being full of ourselves and full of the sense that we are right and that the other person is wrong. By standing down from insisting that we are right, we can make room for the views of the other person who may also be right even though they want something very different than what we want.

            This year, Shabbat HaGadol is also L’Dor V’Dor Shabbat when we have our children’s program right here in the midst of our worship so that our children can experience the sights and sounds of Shabbat while doing kid friendly activities. L’Dor V’Dor Shabbat is a program that embodies the prophecy of the Prophet Malachi expressed in today’s Haftarah.

            According to the Prophet Malachi, God is saying to us, ““Behold I send you Elijah the Prophet before the coming of the great and awesome day of the Lord. God shall return the hearts of the parents to the children and the hearts of the children to the parents so that our world is not destroyed.”

            This is not a prophecy for the faint of heart. It is a prophecy for those of us with open eyes who are willing to look at the challenges that we face as Jews and as human beings. When we compost and recycle, we help to prepare our world for future generations. When we put matzo on our table, together with Pesach cereals and kid friendly Pesach and snacks treats, we help to prepare for the Jewish future. If we buy a hybrid car or an electric car, we are also helping to prepare our world for future generations.

            It does not say yet in Jewish law that gas guzzling cars are treif, but in the generation of our grandchildren and great grandchildren, the values of preserving the environment are going to be just as much a part of Judaism as the age old Jewish law that tells us to give up bread for matzo and year round desserts for macaroons.

            Judaism is not just a religion. It is a way of life. We are forging our Jewish way of life through matzo and Seders and removing drops of wine and juice from our glasses to remember the suffering of our enemies which teaches us not to gloat over the suffering of those who suffer so can get ahead.  We are turning the hearts of our children toward us by having a play area here in our prayer area and by listening to the younger generation whose needs and desire will always, by definition, be different than the needs and desires of the older generation.

            May your Pesach be sweet and liberating. If you want to sell your chametz, there will be a form on the table at Kiddush, and if you want a haggadah coloring book for the kids at your Seder, there will be a homemade coloring book at Kiddush. And for those who don’t have kids, please remember that when you lead davening and read Torah and compost and recycle, you are also helping to make the world a better place for future generations.

            Shabbat Shalom.


[1] Remembering the suffering of the Egyptians is embodied in the custom of removing drops of wine or juice from our glass when recounting the plagues during the Pesach Seder.