Shabbos HaGadol: The Great in the Small (March 2013)

Shabbos HaGadol takes its name from the phrase “Yom HaShem hagadol v’hanorah” in Malachi 3:23. (the day’s haftarah). The verse declares:

 “Behold, I will send you the prophet Elijah before the coming of the great and awesome Day of HaShem.” 

The Jewish mystical tradition connects the experience of enlightenment and revelation with the archetypal symbol of Elijah. When “he” is sent, “Eliyahu” is the revelation of gevurah and chesed in balance. He is both destructive zeal and healing comfort, the visitor at all circumcisions and (we hope) the guest at our seder. His zeal assists us in the burning out of our chametz and his encouragement overflows in the enheartening wine which we pour into his special cup at the seder. We open the door to him by remembering the poor in practical acts of tzedekah in the days before Pesach, and we hope that we have thus prepared a place in our lives for his visiting presence.

 The “great and awesome day” which we expect is actually always present, but in a few days time we will celebrate Passover , and on that festival we will attempt to connect the past in Egypt to the future in the rebuilt Jerusalem. We will be attempting to make that “Day” shine its reflection on our domestic celebration of Pesach.

 If we take Pesach as the celebration of the “reflection of the ultimate redemption” which is to come— that means that these last days of Passover preparation, and especially Shabbos HaGadol itself, might also be the time spoken of in the verse. If so, then now is the time for us to expect the spirit of Elijah to descend.

Shabbos HaGadol is a special opportunity to open the door to “Eliyahu” privately and personally in our contemplative thoughts so that we may share a double portion of Elijah’s spirit: The gevurah we need to cast out narrow-minded cynicism and proud self-importance—together with the gentle and healing chesed that shows us how to love HaShem and all His creations with all our heart, soul, and wealth.

This will enable us to see beyond appearances and realise that the “Great” is sometimes hidden in the small. (see I Kings 19:12)

Just as the great day of the final redemption is mirrored in the celebration of the apparently “smaller” festival day(s) of Pesach, and just as the flavour of the Olam HaBa is tasted in every Shabbos— so Shabbos HaGadol reminds us that our meeting with the “spirit of Eliyahu” may be hidden in smaller epiphanies.

Shabbos HaGadol is “great” because it is a chance to encounter Eliyahu "privately" (as it were) as he walks towards us on his way to our seder and it is a chance to see that his tutelage is often a kind of seed concealed in the “small” and apparently mundane and insignificant.

This year, Shabbos HaGadol coincides with our reading of Parshas Tzav— and one of the passages in that parshah describes the ritual of taking out the ashes from under the altar. Basically this is just a very menial task, but it was so coveted that certain priests in later days used to race and fight for the privilege. Many commentators have pointed out that the deep message of this section of the parshah is that the ordinary events in our life are JUST as valuable as the apparently "Holy" ones.

The apparently insignificant progress we make in our ordinary observance of the mitzvos may achieve more than we can dream, and our positive and generous responses to the Providential events which we encounter may be much more than just small acts of devotion,worship, and charity: They may actually be the keys which open the door to the great expanse of Gilui Eliyahu, the Revelation of Elijah. In the days before Pesach, the door of this opportunity is right before us. We are told that Elijah is to be sent to us before this great day - May we meet him, and greet him, and be greeted in return. 

March 21 2013