July 20, 2024
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Was the Original Shabbat Hagadol Successful?

Shabbat Hagadol commemorates the Shabbat prior to the actual Exodus from Egypt, which occurred on a Thursday. That year Shabbat fell on the 10th of Nissan, which was the day the Jews launched the Korban Pesach process by purchasing the lambs. This simple purchase actually was a defiant act of rebelliousness since the Egyptians worshipped—among other items—cattle and livestock. By procuring the Egyptian deities and designating them for sacrifice, the Jews were flouting their Egyptian controllers and launching the spirit of redemption.

Beyond defying the Egyptians, this acquisition signaled a Jewish withdrawal from accrued pagan interests. Sadly, 210 years of bondage and persecution had eroded the Jewish imagination as most Jews sunk into idol worship. To prompt their geula the Jews themselves were instructed to demonstrate their disregard for cattle-deities by designating them for sacrifice. The Torah instructs “Mishchu u’kechu lachem,” loosely translated as a command to purchase (the term mishchu denotes a form of acquisition). However, Chazal reinterpret the term mishchu to refer to withdrawal and abandonment—the purchase of cattle designated for sacrifice was an exercise in retreating from idol culture.

As this bold purchase constituted the first act of Jewish defiance, the day became enshrined as the great day that inaugurated the redemption. This great day, which first occurred on a Shabbat, yielded the custom to annually celebrate the Shabbat preceding Pesach as the Great Shabbat, or Shabbat Hagadol.

The custom of Shabbat Hagadol implies that the Jews succeeded in this bold mission. Chapter 20 in Yechezkel provides a very different narrative. Without referring to the actual purchase of animals for sacrifice, Yechezkel recounts God’s general challenge to the Jews: Initiate your own redemption by withdrawing from pagan culture in general and disavowing idolatry; God asks: Ish shikutzei einav hashlichu u’vigilulei Mitzrayim al titama’u (cast off your abominable objects and avoid the contamination of the vile religious artifacts of Egypt). Essentially, Yechezkel elaborates the overall challenge encapsulated in the purchase of a Pesach korban—to withdraw from the foreign influences of paganism that had infiltrated the Jewish imagination.

What was the Jewish response? Sadly, Yechezkel reports that the Jews refused to heed this offer and remained committed to their pagan obsessions. The years of slavery had eroded their belief in God and they “rebelled and refused to accede to this request.” Facing this obstinacy, God actually determines to annihilate the Jews and “pour His wrath upon the Jews!” Interestingly enough, the phrase that captures God’s initial plan is “Va’omar lishpoch chamati aleihem” (I determined to discharge My fury upon them). This phrase—which we recite during the Seder and direct toward evil nations—was originally hurled at the Jewish people as a Divine threat of extinction.

This perspective upon our non-compliance begs an obvious question: if we stubbornly refused God’s invitation to participate in geula, why were we ultimately redeemed? Yechezkel portrays a nation that doesn’t deserve redemption!

The ensuing verses in Yechezkel provide an important answer. God claims: “I redeemed you for the sake of My Name—so that it shouldn’t be defiled in the eyes of the world community.” To that point, hundreds of years had been invested in popularizing the revolutionary ideas of monotheism. Avraham had been chosen, and as his family morphed into a clan the ancient world began to notice and acknowledge this new religion that Avraham and his followers preached. Even the locals began to recognize these tenets. Avraham is acclaimed by the locals of Chevron as a “Prince of God”; Lavan confesses that his wealth was augmented by housing Yaakov—whom he sees as an agent of God. Slowly but surely the presence of God proliferated. Yet, despite this growing awareness, one culture remained unmoved and unstirred: Egypt and its ruler had no sense of the God of Avraham. Aside from punitive impact, the 10 plagues lessoned the Egyptians—and the entire world community—about the presence and qualities of this God.

God’s emergence was a product of His people who represented Him on this planet. Eliminating the Jews at this stage (though they may have deserved it) would have led to a recession of the Divine presence in our world. Any recession of His presence is a chilul Hashem and could not be tolerated. The “undeserving” people were redeemed to prevent this regression and avoid an unacceptable chilul Hashem. The fate of the Jewish people reflects the presence of God in our world and our redemption is sometimes justified—even for undeserving people—because we are part of a larger Divine narrative.

Seventy years ago marked the single greatest chilul Hashem since the destruction of the Second Temple. The systematic attempt to eliminate anything and everything Jewish from the streets of Europe was a chilul Hashem that far surpassed any pogroms, inquisitions or Crusades of the past 2,000 years. Never before had the presence of God been more obscured than in a world in which Jewish blood was cheaper than dogs’. Such a chilul Hashem required a response to restore the presence of God in our world. Who can compare the palpable presence of God in 2018 to the obscured presence of 1945! Did our generation deserve to be redeemed? That question lies beyond human comprehension. However, the lessons of Egypt—as presented by Yechezkel—remind us that sometimes we are the beneficiaries of a Divine calculus. The original Shabbat Hagadol may not have been as successful as we imagine. However, it established a paradigm that has been revived in our own generation. Sometimes our geula is solely a product of the process of amplifying the Divine presence in this world by redeeming the Jewish people and restoring their national pride.

By Rabbi Moshe Taragin

Rabbi Moshe Taragin is a rebbe at Yeshivat Har Etzion located in Gush Etzion where he resides.

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