By Larry Gordon
Passover is arriving and its forerunner, Shabbos HaGadol, is here. It is more than just, as the name describes, a big or great Shabbos. If viewed in a contemporary context, Shabbos HaGadol was, in a sense, somewhat akin to the so-called Arab Spring, as I’ll explain below.
On the original Shabbos HaGadol, the firstborn of Egypt rose up in violent defiance of the Egyptian leadership, which was not acting to prevent the final of the ten plagues—the punishment by death of all the firstborn. They fought, but it did them little good, and the affliction visited upon the Egyptian people was the final blow that led Pharaoh to finally insist that the Jewish people leave his country.
This was not just the meting out of a mere punishment to the very brutal and vicious oppressors of the ancient Jewish people, but rather a defining and telling moment that would reshape and direct the events of Jewish history forever. The events gave birth to the solidification of the relationship between G‑d and the Jewish people. The freedom that we celebrate evolved through the administering of a series of miraculous occurrences that culminated with the Egyptian firstborn rising up and inflicting punishment on their own people. This was done, it can be argued, in a fashion not dissimilar to the way in which Arab populations in Libya, Syria, Iraq, Bahrain, and yes, Egypt, rose up against their own, exacting dramatic change over the last two years.
These events changed the face of the way the world now looks at the Arab–Israeli conflict. In a sense, the Arab Spring led a good deal of the world to ask how they can be expected to ask Israel to make significant changes in territory and security as long as so many of the countries that surround the Jewish state are so unsettled. Even this week’s visit by President Obama occurs in an atmosphere in which the president would have liked to ask Israel to make concessions, but even he cannot do that when considering the unpredictability and instability in neighboring countries.
This might just be the news, but it is also a great miracle that has been wrought. And so it is on this great Shabbos at the threshold of the time of our liberation—past and future—that we are more receptive to opening our minds and absorbing messages and ideas from our leadership. After all, most everything we are commanded by Torah to observe has some kind of attachment to the experience of Mitzrayim. Some are obvious, some less so—but the watershed experience of the Exodus is always there.
Shabbos HaGadol, like Shabbos Shuvah of six months ago, is a time to take stock and if necessary redirect ourselves as Jews with a mission and purpose here on earth. To that end, we stream out to our shuls around the world on Shabbos afternoon ready to listen to the scholarly and inspiring ideas of our leaders. What follows are some thoughts and ideas from a sampling of rabbis from around the area.
Rabbi Yaakov Feitman of Kahal Bais Yehuda Tzvi—The Red Shul—following about 45 minutes of discussing the laws of Pesach, is planning on talking about Hurricane Sandy and specifically the lessons we can glean from their particularly hard-hit community in Cedarhurst. “I would like to address the theme of suffering, how we can relate to it today, as well as reflecting upon the lessons of how the Jews suffered in Egypt,” the rabbi says. Rabbi Feitman says that he and his family are now in the process of first moving back into their home that was flooded and unlivable for all these months. He is far from alone in this matter, and there are many in this and other surrounding communities who are hoping and planning to be back home for Pesach. Others, however, are not that fortunate and still have work to do on their homes and hope to be back later in the spring.
Rabbi Feitman agrees that it is difficult to reconcile the experience of Sandy but does not hesitate to say in this season that, yes, in his estimation we can refer to it as a “makah” or manifestation of a plague of sorts. “Having experienced what we did,” Rabbi Feitman says, “I believe it is important that we look at and analyze as well as be inspired by Jewish suffering in a historical context,” the rabbi said.
Rabbi Zev Friedman of the Rambam Mesivta minyan in Lawrence hopes to address a question that was asked of him recently by one of his students—whether a person during the Holocaust and in a concentration or labor camp during Pesach could recite the verse in the Haggadah, “Avadim hayinu, we were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt . . .” To that he hopes to respond that while it is an extremely thought-provoking question, the freedom that we celebrate on Pesach is not exclusively one from physical servitude. The rabbi plans on telling his congregants and students who will attend his derashah that Pesach is representative of a type of independence that also attaches one to the unique freedom associated with connecting to toiling and submerging oneself in the scholarship of Torah. And that Torah provides one with an exceptional type of freedom that allows one to possess a clarity with which to serve Hashem and also be concerned and responsible about our fellow Jews and humanity as a whole.
So, the rabbi says, the freedom that we celebrate on this yom tov is not about living free and disconnected from our co-religionists but rather, on the contrary, it is a freedom that includes concern for the greater good of others. And this, Rabbi Friedman adds, means also identifying not just with other people but with the overall destiny of Klal Yisrael.
On the matter of concern for the destiny of Israel, Rabbi Friedman says that the Rav, Reb J.B. Soloveitchik, zt’l, cites the case of Brother Daniel—Oswald Rufeisen. Daniel, as he was known, was born to a Jewish family in Poland. During the war, he hid for a year in a monastery and subsequently decided to convert to Catholicism. Later in life, he wanted to come to live in Israel and requested that he be accepted as a Jew under the right of return. Halachically, Brother Daniel was always a Jew, Rabbi Friedman says the Rav wrote. His embracing Christianity, he said, indicated a lack of concern for the authenticity as well as the destiny of the Jewish people.
The case was heard by the Israel Supreme Court and they rejected his petition for citizenship that all Jews are entitled to. Brother Daniel eventually moved to Haifa and became a naturalized Israeli citizen. He died in 1998. At the time, Rav Soloveitchik wrote that the case of Brother Daniel required an emotional rather than a halachic response. About this Rabbi Friedman concludes, “Pesach is not just about personal freedom, but rather about a shared freedom that includes chesed and concern for others.”
Rabbi Kenneth Hain of Congregation Beth Sholom in Lawrence plans to pose the question in his derashah, What does Pesach teach us about our national identity? The rabbi says that while his message when we spoke was still evolving, he was thinking specifically about chametz and all its manifestations in our lives. Rabbi Hain is planning on discussing how we need to be capable of balancing the spiritual with the national aspect of who we are as a people.
Of course, to an extent, he explains, his thought process is focused on the political as well as religious transitions that are taking place in Israel today in the aftermath of the recent elections. The rabbi says that he plans to communicate his intrigue with the representation as well as the reality of what chametz stood for in the lives of the ancient Hebrews as well as what it stands for to us today.
“I think that there needs to be a recognition of how Pesach moves us to blending the national life as well as the spiritual life of a Jew,” the rabbi says. He points out that we need to bear in mind that at the time of the Exodus from Egypt, the Jews had no Torah and no land. What we did have, Rabbi Hain says, was an identity that was manifested by the fact that we were prohibited from ingesting chametz.
“Chametz was forbidden, but at the same time we began the movement in the direction of perfecting ourselves through chametz in the two breads that were brought as a sacrifice of sorts in celebration of Shavuos seven weeks later,” Rabbi Hain points out. “Chametz is something we dismiss from our lives, but it is also a jump-off point and a turning point in our national identity,” he adds.
Rabbi Dovid Weinberger of Congregation Shaaray Tefila in Lawrence is expecting to talk about how we cope with difficulties in our lives through faith in his Shabbos HaGadol derashah this Shabbos. The rabbi says that the year past has brought to his attention an astounding number of families and people living in crisis. He is concerned about the well-being of members of his community and beyond and feels that as we explore the challenges of the original Pesach more than 3,000 years ago, we can perhaps internalize that experience and learn how to cope.
The rabbi points out that the difficulties he will talk about and that he encounters on a daily basis are widespread and legion. He says they include problems with children, between husbands and wives, parnassah issues, health problems, divorce of newly married couples, and on and on.
“I believe that we lack a spiritual connection, and that reconnecting on that level may remedy many of these growing problems, to an extent,” Rabbi Weinberger said. He adds that the Chofetz Chaim wrote a good many years ago that many of the problems being encountered by society back then—about 75 years ago—were a manifestation of the ikvasa d’Mashicha, or the prelude to the birth pangs that lead us into the era of Mashiach. Personal pain and communal pain were in a sense interchangeable.
He explains that the suffering we see and hear about does not occur in a vacuum, but rather it is a difficult but also an integral part of the evolution of the destiny of Klal Yisrael. The rabbi says that we are witness to countless increasing problems of this sort because we are not dealing with them appropriately and therefore not effectively. He says that sometimes an intense type of therapy is required to deal with a given addiction or similar situation. By selecting a simpler or more elementary type of treatment, we will not help with whatever the problem may be.
“An easy solution to a difficult problem will be ineffective,” he says. “We are living in trying times and need to reach back into our history—and episodes like Yetziyas Mitzrayim—and be inspired by what our nation has overcome in the past and summon the fortitude to reach those heights once again,” he said.
The Shabbos HaGadol messages are varied and diverse. They have a common theme, though. Our future just may be somewhere deep in our past. At this particular time of year, as we lean sideways, we also have to reach back, while doing our best in looking ahead. Chag sameach. v
Comments for Larry Gordon are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org.