5767 - #23



Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 430:1 states that we call the Shabbat before Pesach, Shabbat Hagadol, because of the miracle that occurred, on this day, in preparation for the Exodus. Tosfot, Shabbat 87b, d.h. V’Oto, the source for this law, explains that, when the Jewish People took lambs on the Shabbat before the Exodus, the first born of the nations of the world gathered around Israel and asked them why they were doing this. The Jewish nation responded that these lambs were in preparation for the Paschal sacrifices to God Who will kill the first born of Egypt. Upon hearing this, the Egyptian first born went to their parents and to Pharaoh to request that Israel be sent out immediately. Their request was refused and the first born Egyptians went to war, killing many compatriots, in an attempt to force Pharaoh to send out the Jews before the final plague. This is a further meaning to the statement that God smote Egypt through its firstborn. We thus mark Shabbat Hagadol to remember this event.

            Tur, Orach Chaim 430 presents a different reason for the commemoration of Shabbat Hagadol. He states that, indeed, the Egyptians asked the Jewish People why they were taking these lambs. The Jewish nation simply responded that they were taking the lambs in order to bring them as sacrifices to God. The Egyptians were greatly offended by this as sheep were holy to the Egyptians and deemed by them to have a divine nature – yet the Egyptians could not say or do anything about it. This answer, Drisha comments, actually also explains why we mark this event on Shabbat, the day of the week upon which it occurred, and not, as we normally do, on the calendar date, in this case Nisan 10. With this act, the Jewish People in Egypt, actually totally separated from the practice of idolatry.  Such conviction emerges from the special power of Shabbat which empowers all those seeking Torah. Observance of Shabbat is the great statement of belief in the One God Who created everything.1 Collecting lambs on this day, right in front of the Egyptians, was also a great statement of belief. This inherently connects with Shabbat and so we mark this event on Shabbat.

             The theological undertone so inherent to the story of the Exodus is often overlooked. The movement from slavery to freedom is inherently interconnected with the movement from idolatry to monotheism. This is inherent in the famous statement of the Haggadah which states that if we were not freed, we would still be slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt. As many commentators point out, we would continuously be slaves to the mores and ideas of Egypt – to the idolatry of Egypt. It is only the belief in the One God that shatters the shackles of idolatry. Idolatry ultimately bounds one to the confines of limited possibilities. Idolatry emerges from an inability to comprehend complexity. How can war and beauty both emerge from the Same Source? Must be that they emerge from two different sources. Applying Greek mythology, the result is an answer that the former emerges from Ares while the latter emerges from Aphrodite. One is bound to the limits of this constraint and the inability to see the actual substance and creativity of the truth. Belief in One God challenges us for it is not simple to understand – yet it opens the realm of possibility, creativity and hope. In taking the lambs, the Jewish nation expressed defiance. We will not be bound to false limitations. They expressed our belief in the One God and the hope and possibility that this belief represents. That is the essential step of the movement from slavery to freedom; it is the step of movement from idolatry to monotheism, specifically to the monotheism of Torah.

             This idea is further expressed by Rabbi Yaakov Kamenetsky, Emet L’Yaakov. Shemot 10:22. Chazal inform us that the majority of the Jewish nation perished in the plague of darkness, for they were resha’im, evil doers, and did not wish to leave Egypt. What, though, distinguished those who perished from the rest of the nation; after all, we are told that all Israel practiced idolatry and thus committed evil? Rav Yaakov explains that God – and only God – knows the inner essence of the person and thus can distinguish between those who could, only seven weeks later, stand at Sinai declaring na’aseh v’nishma and those who could not make the transition from idolater to committed Jew – albeit that, in practice, in Egypt, they were all idolaters. We are not able to truly distinguish between those lost in their limitations and those with the ability to transform – yet Rav Yaakov still gives us some indication of distinction. He states that those who perished in makkot choshech, the plague of darkness, did not only wish for themselves to stay but they wanted also to prevent others from leaving Egypt. It seems that the nation knew of the tradition that they would be enslaved for 400 years and those afraid to leave believed that this time had not passed. As such, they were afraid that those who would leave at this time would meet the same fate as was met by members of the tribe of Ephriam who tried beforehand to leave early.2 They could not distinguish between then and now. They did not believe the words of Moshe that the time had come and the demand was not 400 years of servitude. They lacked the ability to see anew.

             Yet, did not those who left from the tribe of Ephraim also believe they were right, that it was the time to leave and thus they perished because they saw possibility? What was their mistake? Are there not those who would contend that it is monotheism that sets limitation and, in fact, prevents the human being from seeing anew? We, in fact, do speak of the transition of the Exodus as a movement from being avadim, slaves, of Pharaoh to becoming ovdei Hashem, servants of God. Hope and possibility do not mean an absence of parameters. Seeing anew does not mean an absence of structure. Idolatry actually implies some extended possibility for it contends that there are forces, above the gods, which human beings can control. Torah monotheism, though, declares that the Ultimate Force is God. The human being is thus still limited but it is God that is the Parameter. It is with this recognition of this limitation that the human being foregoes all other limitations – and the result is truly possibility as the understanding of the nature of this limitation is really beyond us. We don’t ultimately know God. We don’t ultimately know our parameters – and so we can challenge these parameters through the recognition of the complexity of monotheism and the reality of a question. The person of faith is not a person of surety but rather a person of doubt, a person who is not sure, a person who questions.

             Rav Yaakov points out that the process of the Exodus was actually one of perplexity, one that called upon the nation to wonder what was happening as the messages were mixed. When Moshe first went to Pharaoh, not only were the Jews not freed but the situation became worse.3 Similarly, we can only imagine the confusion of the people in watching the majority of the nation die in the plague of darkness. Idolatry offers simplicity. Monotheism, the true monotheism of Torah, offers complexity. There is no surety – and thus there is always possibility. The true believer evaluates the facts. This does not mean a rejection of all parameters but it does mean that one sees and understands the different messages of reality even as they contradict each other. It is at this point that one rejects idolatry and understands the true nature of belief in the One God. It is then that one understands the distinction of this recognition – but who is the one able to recognize such distinction. It is the one who sees beyond oneself. It is the one who is open to reading the information that emerges from the surrounding world. It is the one open to possibility – the possibility of gaining new insight. That is ultimately the one who believes in the One God and the complexity of life; only such a person continuously challenges himself/herself through the process of questioning. It is that person that demonstrates the bravery inherent in Shabbat Hagadol because it is a commitment that does not emerge from surety of self but rather openness to the chaotic reality of the One God.

Rabbi Benjamin Hecht e-mail


1 See Rashi, Chullin 5a, d.h. Elah

2 Further on this event, see Yalkut Me’am Lo’ez, Shemot 12:40.

3 See Emet L’Yaakov, Shemot 6:9.


Nishma, 2007

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