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Passover, Freedom and Shabbat HaGadol

Shabbat HaGadol (Malachi 3 )

by Rabbi Dr. Abraham Twerski

In most years, the Shabbos on which we read Parashas Tzav is Shabbos HaGadol, the “great” Shabbos, which comes before Passover. Countless explanations have been given for the appellation Shabbos HaGadol.

The Midrash states that on this Shabbos, the Israelites in Egypt acquired sheep for the Passover offering. The sheep was an Egyptian totem, and many of the Israelites had fallen under the sway of Egyptian idolatry. Sacrificing the sheep was a repudiation of paganism and an open defiance of Egyptian rule.

The essence of idolatry is not the worship of an icon. Jews were never so foolish as to believe that an animal, a tree or a statue was a god. Rather, because the ethical and moral teachings of God are restrictive, people may establish a religion and a godhead that allows them to gratify their desires without feeling guilt that they are transgressing a Divine commandment. The Talmud states this very clearly: “The Israelites knew that the idols were without substance. They were simply looking for a sanction to permit them to indulge in forbidden relationships” (Sanhedrin 63a).

People who are driven by powerful cravings may rationalize, and rather than resist the compulsion, they may try to justify their behavior. Idolatry is nothing but a self-deceiving rationalization.

The idea for my Haggadah, From Bondage to Freedom, came from a recovered drug addict. Attending his father's seder, he interrupted his father when the latter began reciting Avadim Hayinu (we were slaves unto Pharaoh). “Father,” he said, “can you truthfully say that you, personally, were ever a slave? You may not be able to appreciate what it is to be free. I can say that I was a slave. When I was in my addiction, I had no freedom at all. I was under the tyranny of drugs. I did many things that I never thought myself capable of doing. I did them because I had no choice. I was a slave to drugs and they were my master. Today I can make choices. Today I am free.”

Drugs are not the only form of enslavement to which people are subject. People who smoke in spite of the knowledge that they are destroying themselves are slaves to nicotine. Some people who are dangerously overweight are a slave to food. Some people are driven mercilessly to achieve acclaim, and others to accumulate more wealth than they could ever consume. All of these drives are essentially tyrannical dictators that control a person.

The sacrifice of the sacred sheep was a rejection of idolatry. It was a repudiation of the compulsivity of our mundane drives. It was our Declaration of Independence, not only of our freedom from the rule of Pharaoh, but also from the ruthless tyranny of our internal drives. We would now be free to choose what is right and proper, even if it is in defiance of a bodily urge.

A child is dominated by bodily drives. He does not have the intellectual capacity to distinguish good from bad, right from wrong. This is why a child is not held legally responsible for his actions. As he matures, he gains intellect, and as an adult, he is held responsible for his actions. The rule of the intellect rather than that of internal drives is what distinguishes an adult from a child.

The Hebrew word for a minor is katan, and for an adult, gadol. The Shabbos on which we rejected rule of the body in favor of rule of the intellect is the Shabbos on which we asserted our maturity as a gadol. Perhaps this is one of the many meanings of Shabbos HaGadol. With the sacrifice of the totem and the repudiation of idolatry the Israelites established themselves as dignified, mature adults.

The festival of Passover is far more than an Independence Day celebration. The Torah writings say that the happenings of the first Passover set a precedent, and that all subsequent Passovers have the magic of that momentous event.

A high level of spirituality is not easily achieved. It requires much effort in divesting oneself of character defects that are antagonistic to spirituality. Some of these may be deeply engrained and may resist being eliminated.

The Israelites in Egypt were at the lowest possible level of spirituality. The Midrash states that of the 50 levels of tumah (spiritual decadence), they were at the 49th, and the Arizal said that had they not been delivered from Egypt at that precise moment, they would have descended into the depths of tumah from which they could never have emerged.

Yet in that sorry state, the Israelites were privileged to a Divine revelation, as the Haggadah says, “'With great awe' refers to the revelation of the Shechinah (Divine Presence).” Several days later, at the dividing of the Reed Sea, there was a Divine revelation so intense that the least of the Israelites had a prophetic vision greater than that of the prophet Ezekiel (Rashi, Exodus 15:2). For there to be so great a spiritual experience while not having emerged from so lowly a state was a unique phenomenon.

The Chassidic writings say that this set a precedent for the future, that on Passover it is possible for a person to make a leap into spirituality even if one has not yet divested oneself of character defects. They say that this is the meaning of the blessing we recite to commemorate the miracles of Chanukah and Purim: “Blessed are You . . . Who has wrought miracles in those days at this time.” This time, the present, the days on which the miracles occurred, is a propitious time for miracles. Similarly, the days of Passover are propitious for repetition of the unique phenomenon of achieving spirituality when one is in a state that would make this impossible at other times.

The Haggadah commentaries call our attention to the formula for the order of the seder: kadesh, urchatz, recite the kiddush and wash the hands. They point out that this may also mean kadesh, become holy and urchatz, wash yourself. Usually one must cleanse oneself of all defects before one can acquire holiness. On Passover the sequence may be reversed. One may acquire holiness even if one has not prepared oneself adequately.

The Psalmist says, “Desist from evil and do good” (Psalms 34:15). One must first abandon all improper behavior before doing good. However, it can also be read as “Desist from evil by doing good.” “A small amount of light can banish a great deal of darkness” (Tzedah LaDerech 12). Passover is the time when this can best be accomplished.

Passover is zeman cheirusenu, which is not simply the time when we became free, but the time when we were freed, the time when God delivered us from enslavement. Just as one may be a slave to a cruel taskmaster, one may also be enslaved by the tyranny of one's bodily drives or by addictive habits. Breaking loose from these may be very difficult, but is much easier on Passover. All that is necessary is a sincere desire to become spiritual, and the Divine blessing will enable one to achieve that desire.

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