Shabbat HaGadol Sermon

Shabbat HaGadol Sermon


1 Apr 2023

by Student Rabbi Yael Tischler

Shabbat Shalom. This Shabbat is a particularly special Shabbat, and not just because it’s my very first Shabbat with you. It’s Shabbat HaGadol – the Big or Great Shabbat – which is the name given to the Shabbat right before Passover. It’s traditional for the rabbi to give an exceptionally long sermon on Shabbat HaGadol, so I’ve timed this one and it’s approximately an hour and 45 minutes long. I hope people don’t mind. 

April fools. Don’t worry. This sermon is closer to ten minutes. Far be it from me to keep us from kiddush longer than necessary.

So what makes the Great Shabbat so great? A few reasons: The most straightforward one – it’s in our Haftarah. The Prophet Malachi proclaims, “Behold, I am going to send you Elijah the Prophet before the coming of the great and awesome day of YHVH – yom adonai ha’gadol v’hanorah.” This “great and awesome day” is the day the Messiah will come, shepherding in a world set to rights. The reason we hear Malachi’s words today is the belief that the messianic era will begin in Nissan, the same month as the Exodus.  Our liberation from all oppression will happen in the month in which we first experienced liberation from our oppression. 

Shabbat HaGadol is also the day we received our first mitzvah – the law of the Passover sacrifice – so in a way, it’s our collective bat mitzvah, but minus the awkward dancing. And with added mortal danger. We performed this mitzvah whilst we were still slaves in Egypt, when any step out of line could have incurred terrifying consequences. Public worship in a time of oppression is a radical act, and was a way the Israelites asserted the freedom of their hearts, minds and souls before they were able to reclaim the freedom of their bodies.

But it is also the anniversary of a different act of rebellion. According the Tosafot, medieval commentators on the Talmud, on Shabbat HaGadol, the Egyptian first-borns saw the Israelites performing the Passover sacrifice. The first-borns asked the Israelites what they were doing, and they told them that they were making a sacrifice to a God who would kill all the first-borns of Egypt. Horrified, the first-borns went to their fathers and to Pharaoh to ask them to let the Israelites go. They refused. So, the first-borns led a violent rebellion against Pharaoh. Many of them died. 

What struck me about this story was that it was Egyptians themselves who advocated for the end of the Israelite enslavement, and led the revolt against Pharaoh. These weren’t marginalised, fringe, or disenfranchised Egyptians either – the first-borns held status, they were the ones who would inherit property. They benefited directly from Israelite oppression. It’s hard to call them anti-establishment; they were the heirs to the establishment. It would be tempting to tell a story about how the first-borns were acting in solidarity with the Israelites – which would be a lovely story indeed, and perhaps they were, partially – but the first-borns were very clearly acting in their own interests. They didn’t want to die on account of the actions of their parents or their government. That’s what it took for a generation to rebel against an oppressive system that they profited from: for them to understand just how much they stood to lose by continuing to be part of that system. For them to understand that any profits they received from that system were illusory and short-term in the face of their certain demise. For them to see that our fates are intertwined; that a just society benefits everyone. This is a familiar story. 

Today, many of the most passionate voices in the climate justice movement are young people. Primarily because they are the ones who will have to pick up the pieces, if indeed there are any pieces left for them to pick up. In the words of Tahsin Uddin, a climate activist in Bangladesh, “Though we the young people are not responsible for climate change, it will have a greater impact on us.” According to UNICEF:

Virtually every child on the planet is already affected by climate change… As humanitarian action falls short of addressing the climate crisis, children and young people are bearing the brunt… The climate crisis is a child rights crisis…They are not simply inheritors of our inaction — they are living the consequences today.

They are living the consequences, but they are also taking charge of their present and future. Mitzi Tan, a young climate activist in the Philippines, wrote about surviving her own plague of darkness when the strongest typhoon of the year hit:

My phone suddenly rang. It was my mom – she told me how the river in our city was starting to rise… and why I shouldn’t go home because the roads are starting to get flooded. Little did I know that… I would spend the next two days at my friend’s house with no power, with the wind banging on the windows and doors. I saw on the news how my city started to sink, and how people were trapped on their rooftops calling for help. I had to sit in the dark for two days, not knowing if my house was consumed by the floods or even if my mom was okay.

But Mitzi was not content to just sit in the dark. She and her organisation, Youth Advocates for Climate Action Philippines, “jumped into action… to help the most impacted communities.” They “set up a donation drive and planned relief operations, spending several weekends travelling from one community to another.” Though she acknowledged that she could feel hopeless, she also wrote:

It is definitely a challenge, but we have to remember that we are not alone in this. The Filipino youth are fighting for climate justice, and we have a global youth movement fighting for the same thing. This gives me so much hope, the knowledge that on almost every continent, we have a friend also calling for urgent climate action… History has shown us that as long as we fight for justice and peace, we will always win. We will achieve the impossible, because we know we have to.

I want to agree with Mitzi – that “as long as we fight for justice and peace, we will always win.” But the story of the Egyptian first-borns shows that this is not always true. The first-borns understood what was in their best interests and the best interests of their country, but they were ultimately unsuccessful. They tried peaceful action – talking to their elders and to their government – and they tried violent action, but neither worked. Even though they were in the right, their elders and their government did not listen to them, and so they failed. Or rather, their elders and government failed them. In their short lifetimes, their country had endured extreme weather patterns, disease epidemics, the destruction of crops, livestock, food & water sources. And, after their quashed rebellion, they all died.  Not one of them survived to see the Exodus from Egypt.

The tale of the first-born rebels is tragic, because it was not inevitable. The first-borns took action as soon as they became aware of the imminent danger to themselves. Their parents, and Pharaoh, could have changed their behaviour in time to avoid the most devastating plague of all: the slaying of the first-born. This is a story of a younger generation struggling to mend a broken system upheld by their parents, and by those in positions of power, but ultimately not only being ignored, but actively shut down by those with the power to change that system. Due to the wilful inaction of their parents and government, they died.

This is not the way I would have wanted the story to end. I would have wanted a story in which Pharaoh and the Egyptians listened to their children. I would have wanted to tell you about the brave Egyptian first-borns who played a key role in the liberation of our ancestors, by having the courage to stand up to those who crafted, perpetuated and collaborated with a system that enslaved them. But this is not the story we have. Instead, we have a story about young people who recognised the possibility of healing the brokenness of their world, but had that possibility torn apart by the very people who should have been looking out for them. They paid with their lives.

I do not want to live in this story. I want to live in one in which it is possible to reroute ourselves away from global collapse, and towards a path of social, economic and environmental justice. I want to live in a world in which we listen to our children. They are our prophets and prophetesses; they can see a future that we cannot; they can hold the possibility for change; they can steer us away from what seems inevitable into a reality that serves us all. 

At the end of the Haftarah for Shabbat HaGadol, the prophet Malachi tells us what will happen right before the yom gadol v’norah – that great and awesome day, the day the messianic era will begin. The Prophet Elijah will come to “reconcile parents with children and children with their parents, so that, when I [God] come, I do not strike the whole land with utter destruction.” Malachi knows what needs to happen if we want to bring about a healed world, and what we need to do in order to avoid our own demise. We need to listen to our children. 

At the Passover Seder, we, the grown-ups, break the middle matzah. As it cracks, we hear our world crack. We are left holding the bread of affliction in our hands. But, at the end of the seder, it is the children who bring in the Afikomen, the bread of redemption. They hold the missing piece. They take what has been broken, and make it whole. Let us live this story. The story in which repair is possible, if we listen to our children. They hold more wisdom than we can imagine.  Shabbat Shalom.