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On Shabbat HaGadol

The Shabbat before Pesach is known as Shabbat HaGadol: The Great Shabbat. The special nature of the day is highlighted with a haftarah selected from the prophet Malachi. The words of this anonymous prophet (the name Malachi simply means “my messenger”), who lived around the middle of the 5th century BCE, are remarkably contemporary sounding. A closer look at what he has to say can be simultaneously comforting and frightening.

Speaking on behalf of God, Malachi says: “From the days of your ancestors you have strayed from My statutes, and have not observed them; return to Me, and I will return to you”. Are we not familiar with this timeless lament? Interestingly, according to rabbinic tradition after Malachi, prophecy was taken away from Israel. God, it would seem, finally tired of complaining to the Jewish people that they were straying and left it to the rabbis to be the ones to point it out.

It is two other verses (14, 15), however, that leap across 25 centuries and are jolting in their timelessness: “It’s useless to serve God! What gain is there in observing God’s service…? We account the arrogant happy; the evildoers are the ones who live on; they even try God and get away with it”. Has nothing changed? It seems that lack of faith and resistance to pious living according to the teachings of the Torah were as much the norm in the days of Malachi as they are today. Suffice it to say that that between the 5th century B.C.E. and now, it has never been significantly different either.

So what keeps Judaism going after all these years? According to verse 16, there have always been “those who revered the Eternal”. More importantly, the verse continues, the core of faithful believers “talked to each other”. With this in mind, let me point out that a crucial part of any Pesach seder is to talk with one another about what the struggle for freedom means. Right after reciting the Four Questions we read:

“Because we were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt…Therefore, even if we were all of us wise, all of us full of knowledge and understanding, all of us learned in Torah, it nevertheless would be incumbent upon us to speak of the departure from Egypt; and all those who speak of the departure from Egypt are accounted praiseworthy.”

What keeps Judaism going? Part of the answer is that we talk to each other and in so doing we tell and retell our stories. Rabbi Levi Yitzhak taught that this all-important talking to one another is implicit in the very name of the holiday of Pesach. He said do not read it as Pesach but rather as ‘peh sichah‘ — translated, this means “talking mouth,” but is to be understood as “dialogue.” Thus, the deep meaning of the name Pesach means to be in dialogue.

Struggling with faith and doubt is both universal and eternal. This is disquieting, even frightening for those who hope to one day finally have answers. On the other hand, it is also comforting to know that our struggles, uncertainties and impious behaviors are not new concerns for the Jewish people. Sitting around the Pesach seder table is the perfect place to talk about these timeless matters.

(Personally, I find it truly awesome that the Four Questions, without fail, have been recited in Jewish homes every year since well before the start of the common era: more than 2000 years. I hope that you experience this sense of awe this year at your seder table!)

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