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The Greatness of Sacrifice
This d’var torah is partially based on sources found in The Book of Our Heritage by Rabbi Eliyahu Kitov
This Shabbat, all of the Jews around the world will be celebrating שבת הגדול, the Shabbat before Pesach. While there are a few minor מנהגים of this Great Shabbat, the main celebration is in the commemoration of what occurred on the original שבת הגדול- when בני ישראל were commanded to and did take aside sheep for their קרבן פסח five days before their redemption from Egypt. While this was a very special moment, and according to many, the first step of the entire בני ישראל’s direct involvement in יציאת מצרים, it has very little significance beyond פסח מצרים. In the times of the משכן and בתי מקדש, the Jewish People would gather their קרבן פסח closer to the actual holiday, so שבת הגדול was a normal shabbat (perhaps the last normal shabbat until after חג), and in our days, it has even less significance since, מפני חטאתנו, we are not bringing a קרבן פסח at all. So, why do we celebrate שבת הגדול with a special name, הפטרה, יוצרות, and other מנהגים?
In order to properly understand our celebration of שבת הגדול, we must first review what we are commemorating this week. The original שבת הגדול, which took place on י’ ניסן, five days before יציאת מצרים, was the time that בני ישראל collected their lambs for the first קרבן פסח. While this was a very significant step for פסח מצרים, why was this so “great”? What was so גדול about שבת הגדול?
Most מפורשים explain that there was a big נס involved with the Jewish People collecting their lambs for the קרבן פסח- there are two main schools of thought on what exactly the נס was:
The ספר הפרדס, originally written by רש”י and edited by his student Rav Shemaya, answers that the נס of שבת הגדול was in the reactions of the Egyptians to בני ישראל’s collection of the lambs. Remember that the Egyptians worshipped lambs, so when they saw בני ישראל collecting them, they would not have been happy. Furthermore, the Jewish People were commanded by G-d to be completely honest with the Egyptians why they were collecting the lambs, and the Jews made sure to fulfill this. It is therefore a huge miracle that the Egyptians, when told by the Jews that they were going to sacrifice the lambs (Egyptian god) that they had, did not kill or hurt them- many believe that there was divine intervention to stop their plans of revenge and retribution. It is because of this miracle, which saved the Jews from being punished for following G-d’s command and encouraged them to move forward with the קרבן פסח, that this shabbat is known as שבת הגדול.
Tosafot (שבת פז עמ’ ב) gives a slightly deeper answer. He writes that when בני ישראל were gathering their קרבן פסח lambs, the firstborn of all of the nations of the world gathered around and asked what they were doing. When the Jews answered truthfully as commanded, they made sure to add that G-d would be killing the firstborn of all Egyptians. The firstborns were so horrified by this that they begged Pharoah to let the Jews go before they would be killed, but he refused and the firstborns therefore waged a war on the Egyptians, leaving many casualties and possibly weakening the Egyptian army prior to יציאת מצרים. Therefore, תוספות concludes, this Shabbat is called שבת הגדול- because of the greatness of the Egyptian firstborns’ reaction to the news of their impending death- that they tried to do תשובה and have the Jews freed. Tosafot’s answer, partially based on a hint in the wording of Tehilim 136, is not as simple as Rashi’s based on ספר שמות, but either way, we can see that something “big” happened on the Big Shabbat through Jews being honest with the Egyptians.
As we’ve seen, something great happened 5 days before Pesach on Shabbat Hagadol. But, with most of our Jewish holidays, we don’t celebrate on the day of the week that our original celebration occurred- we celebrate based on the date of the month. So, why do we commemorate שבת הגדול on the Shabbat before Pesach instead of on י’ ניסן? Wouldn’t it make more sense to commemorate these great miracles on the same date- 5 days before Pesach?
The answer once again lies in the nature of the miracle. Whether the miracle was in the Egyptians lack of reaction or intensity of reaction to the Jews’ actions, there probably wouldn’t have been a miracle if the Jews hadn’t been commanded to gather their lamb on Shabbat. The Jews, who kept some level of shabbat observance while in Egypt, did not usually do so much work on the Holy day. Therefore, it was unusual that they would all be walking around with a lamb, and the Egyptians asked them why- leading to the miracle. If בני ישראל hadn’t been commanded to collect their קרבן פסח on shabbat, it might not have been so unusual, and less Egyptians would’ve questioned them, leading to a lessening of this “great” miracle. Therefore, we celebrate the miracle of שבת הגדול on שבת instead of on י’ ניסן.
Shabbat Hagadol also has a very unique הפטרה, read from the last chapter of the Prophets at the end of ספר מלאכי. In it, we are reminded by Malachi that we do have a future, but we must make sacrifices to get there- we cannot be afraid to give צדקה and תרומות- we must trust in G-d that He will support us as we make these מסירות. The reading ends with:
הִנֵּה אָנֹכִי שֹׁלֵחַ לָכֶם, אֵת אֵלִיָּה הַנָּבִיא–לִפְנֵי, בּוֹא יוֹם ה’, הַגָּדוֹל, וְהַנּוֹרָא והֵשִׁיב לֵב-אָבוֹת עַל-בָּנִים, וְלֵב בָּנִים עַל-אֲבוֹתָם–פֶּן-אָבוֹא, וְהִכֵּיתִי אֶת-הָאָרֶץ חֵרֶם
And behold I send you Eliyahu Hanavi before the great and awesome day of G-d. He will restore the hearts of fathers to children and children to fathers, lest I come and strike the land with destruction. (מלאכי ג’:כ”ג-כ”ד)
While this is both an inspiring and scary idea for all types of Jews, we must wonder how this reading is connected to Shabbat Hagadol, a day where we primarily remember the past. Why do we read this הפטרה on שבת הגדול?
A common theme between the miracle of שבת הגדול and מלאכי פרק ג’ is the theme of sacrifices. On י’ ניסן in the year of יציאת מצרים, the Jewish people made a huge sacrifice as they prepared their Pascal sacrifices- they outright told the Egyptians of the קרבן they would be bringing instead of bending the truth. As we’ve mentioned above, the taking of the קרבן פסח on the original שבת הגדול represented the Jewish Peoples’ first step of direct involvement in יציאת מצרים. The risk that they took by following G-d’s command to be truthful to the מצרים was the first of many leaps of faith that the Jewish People sustained as part of the Exodus. As a result of this “sacrifice,” G-d rewarded them with a miracle- whether it was the Egyptians letting them go despite the inherent insult to their religion, or it was a subtle civil war that resulted from the sheer chutzpa of such a move. So too, in the End of Days, the Jewish Nation will need to make a sacrifice. Malachi, in his last prophesy, reminded the Jewish People that nothing good can come without a sacrifice- whether it’s giving תרומות and מעשרות or making an even bigger sacrifice to merit the final גאולה and finally finish the redemption process started by our forefathers on the original שבת הגדול. Nothing good can ever come without השתדלות, and the lesson of שבת הגדול is that in order to merit the final גאולה, the Jewish People must make a similar sacrifice as our ancestors did to merit the first גאולה, whether it is just by losing money, or even by taking a horrible risk by telling a non-Jew to their face that their religion is wrong and that עם ישראל חי. This is the lesson of שבת הגדול, and this is important מוסר for us as we enter the time of the אתחלתא דגאולה. According to most legitimate Religious poskim, the State of Israel represents the beginning of the end- the beginning of the final גאולה just as שבת הגדול represented the beginning of the first גאולה. Moving to Israel is never easy, especially when we have so much comfort and financial flexibility while away. But, we must take חיזוק from the final prophesy of מלאכי that even as we celebrate שבת הגדול in תשע”ג and we prepare to sit down for two סדרים on פסח night without a קרבן, that no גאולה can ever come without a sacrifice- that we will never merit the משיח if we cannot take a leap of faith by uprooting ourselves from the Diaspora and moving to our National Homeland. If we can make this sacrifice, and we do make עליה to ארץ ישראל, then we, like our forebears, can merit miracles that help us follow G-d’s Will even better (much as the Jewish State has already seen many open miracles), and with Hashem’s help, this will be the last year we will be celebrating פסח without a קרבן, and we will merit a true and complete fulfilment of לשנה הבא בירושלים very speedily in our days.