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Shabbat HaGadol

There are several reasons why the Shabbat before Pesach is called Shabbat HaGadol, one of them according to our tradition is that the first Pesach (The 15th of Nissan in the Hebrew year 2448) occurred on a Thursday, Erev Pesach, the 14th of Nissan, when the Children of Israel performed the 1st Korban Pesach (the paschal offering), was a Wednesday. That 1st Korban Pesach required that each household select their sheep 4 days beforehand, on the 10th of Nissan, and tie it to their bedposts.

The 1st Mitzvah given to the entire nation was the Korban Pesach, that Shabbat was the moment when the nation performed the 1st step of the 1st Mitzvah by preparing to offer an animal considered sacred by the Egyptians and deified (as the god Khnum) as a sacrifice to the God of Israel.

Shabbat HaGadol is a time of transition, for some their kitchens are starting to look slightly more like the international space station as we Kasher for Pesach, remove our Hametz and prepare the items needed for the Seder at the same time we have a Shabbat in which we are Hiuv to eat bread at our meals of Shabbat – we are preparing for a time without Chametz and yet still commanded to eat it.

Interestingly in leap years the Parsha before Pesach is Metzora – where we discuss the impurity that contaminates a person due to their evil speech and the ramifications of such a spiritual illness and its remedy through the process of the Cohanim. Pesach is the holiday that aside from the Mitzvah of destroying Hametz and eating Matzah, we fulfil the obligation of remembering the incredible journey of the Children of Israel as they broke the bonds of slavery and journeyed through miracles to become a free nation. We are actually commanded as a positive Mitzvah to remember this idea every morning and evening.

For this reason, the paragraph of the Shema that deals with ritual fringes Tzizit which are only obligatory to be worn during the day, is included in our repetition of Shema at night since it directly speaks of the Exodus from Egypt – a significant weight of consideration is given to this fundamental idea within the Blessings of the Shema and a variety of other blessing and prayers and Mitzvot such as Kiddush. Whilst we fulfil the necessity of Halachic remembrance through the mentioning of the idea, Pesach is the time when we focus our attention entirely on the matter and explore it in a focused and structured way.

Of all of the festivals of the Torah, it is intriguing that the Seder Night with all its complexity, laws and customs is perhaps the most attended Jewish festival worldwide – for many of us it serves as a reminder of our childhoods and especially of grandparents, it is for many the time when the whole family (plus extensions) gather together for a purpose, a requirement and holy responsibility, it marks the difference between being a child and attending a Seder and being an adult and running a Seder for one’s own family. No other book aside from perhaps the Chumash and Siddur is printed in as great a volume as the Haggadah and versions from the Middle Ages to the present day are able to be seen in museums around the world.

Jews know all too well about the power of speech, aside from its capacity to heal, to teach, to bring together and destroy divisions it is conversely able to ignite, inflame and spread anger and madness at the speed of a wildfire through society. As we have watched this terrible war unfold in the last year in Israel, may we see true lasting peace soon, the old familiar rhetoric and hatred has once again returned to be vocalized:

Campuses & city streets have become places where calls for the destruction of the State of Israel and the Jewish people are now common at every rally and political protest, the argument that it applies only to “Zionists” making little sense when approximately half of all Jews worldwide live in Israel, speak their native language Hebrew, keep their national festivals and customs in the modern state created by the league of nations following the horrors of the 2nd world war and the Holocaust.

Jews arrived as survivors of brutal torment from Europe and terrible, violent expulsion from Arab countries toa land that although undeveloped and largely unusable the land of their ancient longing: no fewer than three times daily Jews prayed to return to their land following the thousands of years since the Roman exile, every Synagogue in every country worldwide and every prayer uttered by every Jew has been directed towards Jerusalem.

On Pesach we teach the fundamental lessons of our people to the next generation, that they themselves are part of this incredible and miraculous narrative told in the lives of a unique people over thousands of years, telling their children and they their children’s children that the Almighty did miracles for our forefathers in a land not theirs, that with a strong hand He brought us to a place where we can call home. In every generation we manage somehow to integrate, adopt new languages and lifestyles and yet no matter what we remain Jews, when we least expect it our neighbours remind us.

It with no small sense of irony that the secular educational institutions that liberal Jews funded have become the hotbeds of antisemitic rhetoric and propaganda directed at secular Jewish nationalism, regardless of our colour, political views or religious “affiliation” if we identify with the larger Jewish nation, with being the Children of Israel we are immediately called oppressors. Despite the millions of people killed in recent wars across the world it is the Jews who are the genocidal, no matter how other countries defend themselves it is we who are excessive – all other nations have a homeland and country, only we must fight both physically and vocally to have such a right and privilege.

“This year we are slaves, next year may we be free men” – we often think of this in the context of chains and laws that subjugate and control, do we stop perhaps to consider that the slavery is inside our minds? That we tell ourselves a narrative of what may and may not be possible, that we hold ourselves back from our destiny that we are perhaps, in many ways afraid to be truly free:

For Jews freedom is not a free-for-all recklessness or expression of doing whatever we want whenever we want, rather we understand that true freedom requires boundaries, laws and most importantly responsibilities. On Pesach we take the symbol of mankind’s most basic foodstuff since antiquity, bread and we forbid it – we show that our freedom comes even with the ability to transcend that most basic symbolic elements of civilisation as we know it – for Jews our freedom is dependent not on external factors but on moral and spiritual values.

I pray that this year be a gathering of our people back together in our land to create a society where we can express our unique culture, ideals and peoplehood – and I pray equally that it is a time of personal freedom for all of us, that we break free of negativity, of doubts and illusions and most importantly the shackles we have created to hold ourselves back from our truest expressions of self and ultimate realisation of purpose.

Shabbat Shalom & Chag Somayach!

Rabbi Jonathan Goldschmidt 2024 ©

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