Shabbat Hagadol: Preparing for Passover

The Shabbat that precedes the beginning of Passover is known in our tradition as Shabbat Hagadol – The Great Sabbath. The first night of Passover this year falls next Friday night, so this Shabbat is Shabbat Hagadol. The exact origin of this title is not exactly clear, but it is probably drawn from the special Haftarah (reading from the Prophets) assigned for this Shabbat. That reading is the conclusion of the book of the prophet Malachi:

Behold, I am sending you Elijah the Prophet, before the coming of that great and awesome day of YHVH Yom YHVH hagadol v’hanora that you may turn the hearts of parents to their children, and the hearts of children to their parents, lest destruction smite your land. (Malachi 3:23-24)

These powerful words not only conclude the brief book of Malachi; Malachi is the final book of the entire section of Nevi’im, the Prophets, so this is the final message of the entire prophetic literature: A great day is coming, Elijah is coming! Parents and children, turn your hearts toward one another, and open the door for Elijah!

Get ready for Passover!

Since Talmudic times it has been customary on this Shabbat to learn about Passover. In many communities, the rabbi gives a lengthy teaching on Shabbat afternoon, reviewing all the details of making one’s house kosher for Passover. And there are a lot of details. The burdens of Passover cleaning and preparation are legendary. But even if you are not strictly observant, there is much to do to prepare for the Seder. Making ready for a special occasion makes it more special, and it is good to set aside time to mark this magnificent holiday. And, Passover is the original “spring-cleaning” holiday – one of the Hebrew names for Passover is Chag ha’Aviv, the Festival of Spring. The removal of leaven from your home in ancient times meant the removal of the fermented, the moldy, the old food from your winter stores and replacing that with new and fresh grain. So even if you are not strict in your Passover preparation, you can still do some spring-cleaning. In honor of the Festival of Spring get rid of some clutter, take the caulking off the windows, and let some fresh, bracing air into your house. I can’t be the only one in my neck of the woods who is ready to be liberated from the bonds of this cruel winter. O Pharaoh of Winter, let my people go!

These external preparations are meant to encourage and mirror internal readiness as well. How do we internally prepare ourselves for Passover? Another of Passover’s Hebrew names is Z’man Cherutaynu, the Season of Our Liberation. On Passover we contemplate the meaning of liberation. Just as the warmth of the springtime liberates the seeds to sprout and the trees to bud and blossom, so we affirm that there is a power in the universe that desires human beings to be free to fulfill their potential. We affirm our deep-down conviction that oppression, degradation, exploitation, and abuse of other human beings are contrary to what should be. Passover can be a time to look critically at the structures of power in our world, and to commit to do whatever we can to promote human flourishing. Yes, it is a complicated world, with forces at work that seem to be beyond our individual abilities to resolve, but underneath the debris of our human drama there are countless seeds of possibility and love and equity that are continuously sprouting and then reaching out for our loving care. We have holy work to do. O Pharaoh of oppression and despair and pessimism, let my people go, that we may serve Life Unfolding in all its manifold forms!

Another aspect of liberation that I find very compelling is contained in the familiar refrain “Dayenu!” Dayenu means “It is sufficient” or “It would have been enough.” We know Dayenu of course from the song: “Ilu hotzianu miMitzrayim…” – “Had God brought us out of Egypt, and not performed wonders, dayenu – even that would have been enough.” The song then details each step of our ancient journey – splitting the sea, receiving the Torah, being fed with the manna – and each time declares dayenu, that would have been enough.

What a strange song! How would it have been enough to take us out of slavery and then leave us trapped at the shore of the Red Sea? How would it have been enough to get us across the Sea and then strand us starving in the desert? The declaration of dayenu must be referring to something other than our physical circumstances. My dear colleague Rabbi Sheila Peltz Weinberg offers this teaching:

In what sense is each moment of liberation enough? Dayenu signifies deep acceptance and gratitude. We acknowledge the present moment. In the affirmation of dayenu, we are fully present to the preciousness of each act of redemption and care – dividing the sea, leading us across, caring for us in the desert….We receive each moment with love. This acceptance allows us to move to the next moment and receive the waiting gift. When we greet each moment with conditions, judgments and expectations – “well this really isn’t quite where we need to be” or “wait a second, this is not what we were promised” or “hey, what’s coming next?” – our expectations keep us tense. We are not free. We are not available to receive the next moment. Our fantasies about the past and our desire to control the future cut us off from the wonders of this moment. They shut us in a prison of disappointment and suffering. Dayenu is a great liberator. It is a jolt into the presence of love, compassion, attention, and freedom.*

May these thoughts leaven your discussion (not your matzah!) around the Seder table and beyond, so that we can fulfill the instructions of the Haggadah: “V’chol hamarbeh lesaper b’yitziat Mitzrayim harei zeh meshubach!” – “Everyone who expands on the story of our liberation is to be praised!”

And, if it’s not asking too much, may the hearts of the parents be turned toward their children, and the hearts of the children be turned toward their parents, and may all of our hearts turn toward each other. Come on in, Elijah!

Shabbat Shalom and A Zissen Paysakh, Chag Same’ach, A Sweet and Joyous Passover,

Rabbi Jonathan

*This passage can be found on page 69 in A Night of Questions: A Passover Haggadah, edited by Rabbi Joy Levitt and Rabbi Michael Strassfeld, The Reconstructionist Press, Philadelphia, 2000