Shabbat Ha-gadol

The Privilege of Our Freedom

Paying the Price

True freedom cannot be given to a people on a silver platter.

While a great and expansive historical process does not end with one action, at times a grand process does depend on one act. This insight is commemorated in our traditions for Shabbat Ha-gadol (the Great Sabbath), which precedes Pesach, the festival of freedom. As to the nature of this Shabbat, the Tur[1] writes:

The Shabbat before Pesach is called Shabbat Ha-gadol.

The reason for this is that a great miracle was done before the pesach offering in Egypt — taking it on the tenth, as it says (Shemot 12:3), “On the tenth of this month, they will take for themselves a lamb for each patriarchal house, a lamb for each house.”

Now, the Pesach on which Israel left Egypt was on Thursday, as stated in Seder Olam (ch. 5), so it turns out that the tenth of the month was Shabbat. Each took a lamb as his pesach and tied it to the bedpost, and the Egyptians asked them: “Why are you doing this?”

And they responded, “We will slaughter it as a passover, as God has commanded us.”

[The Egyptians] gnashed their teeth that [the Israelites] were slaughtering their gods, but they were not allowed to say anything to them.

On account of this miracle, they call it Shabbat Ha-gadol.

The “great” process starts with the Israelites’ command to take a lamb as an offering, even though Egypt regarded it as a god. Thus, a “great miracle” happens to the Jewish people: despite the fury of the Egyptians about the insult to their gods, they do not have the ability to do anything. Concerning this description, R. Levi Yitzchak of Berdychev[2] asks:

Why do they refer to this miracle as “great” more so than other miracles? Were there not greater miracles than this miracle? The miracle of splitting the Red Sea and other miracles which Blessed God did to his people Israel were not greater than this miracle?

Let us add another question: would it not be more appropriate to give the term “great” to the process as a whole, not to one discrete stage in the process?

  1. R. Levi Yitzchak responds (loc. cit.) that the great miracle is this very change, the turning point in the Jews’ consciousness!

They call this a great miracle because it was done by the greatness of the intellect, which felt no fear or trepidation towards the Egyptians, even though they wanted to slaughter their gods.

Reaching this turning point in the Israelites’ consciousness allows the process to begin, and this “great” process, in its entirety, hinges on it. What is essential in preparing the ground for salvation and freedom? Something else which is great, “the greatness of the intellect,” comes and fills their hearts with courage, banishing their fear, giving them spiritual fortitude and uncompromising determination, until they are ready to put themselves in danger and to confront the Egyptians, in order to merit their desired freedom and independence. In terms of this, “The privilege of our freedom is the willingness to pay the price.”

Perhaps there is also a third viewpoint which is the root of the two preceding aspects: “the greatness of the intellect” affords the Jewish people a deep understanding of who they are and what their aims are as a unique nation. Now we mark this great miracle not only as historical memory, but as an object lesson for the present, for our days. The Exodus from Egypt, from slavery to freedom, indicates for us that the process of going out to true freedom exists in all of generations. Particularly, we must understand that in order to reach true and complete freedom, one act or event does not suffice, nor even an act or event in each generation. We are talking about a demanding, continuous process. A nation which craves life, which desires true freedom, must reveal the willingness to fight on its own for an extended period of time, and to bear its price: true freedom cannot be given to a people on a silver platter.

However, here as well, we need to remember the root of everything which requires “the greatness of the intellect.” In order to merit true and complete freedom, we need first to clarify its elements and its goals and to understand the greatness of the unique identity we aspire to in seeking freedom. In this spirit, Rav Kook[3] writes:

It is not so simple to grasp the concept of servitude in the fullness of its magnitude, to understand how to get rid of its chains and to assert the unfettered space of freedom, to escape from the cursed category of slave and to arrive into the blessed category of freeman. It is no simple task to recognize the full magnitude of the concept of freedom. One must see clearly in order to embrace true liberty and not stumble in false freedom — for the latter is much poorer and lower than any servitude.

It is simple to err in the illusion of freedom when in one fact one is sunk in slavery and subjugation. True freedom, as he[4] writes, includes two essential physical and spiritual stages:

  1. a) Personal freedom entails freedom of the body from any foreign subjugation, etc.
  2. b) This freedom is not acquired except by the freedom of the soul, freedom of the spirit from everything which makes it veer from its straight, steadfast path, forged from its inner essence.

The first stage is physical freedom — freedom from the chains of foreign domination, which happens on Pesach; the second stage is spiritual freedom, the design and formulation of identity and culture which begins on Shavuot with the giving of the Torah. The counting of the omer-offering connects these two stages and creates the formula for complete freedom. However, in all of this, one must remember that without the willingness “to pay the price” and to withstand difficulties, one cannot grasp them.

A nation may be free in terms of politics and authority and exercise democracy yet still be a nation under the hegemony of other spiritual and cultural influences, dominated by passing fashions, by interests, and by the aims of others, as Rav Kook[5] writes:

The difference between the slave and the freeman is not only a distinction of status, the fact that one is subservient to another and the other is not subservient. We may find an intelligent slave whose spirit is filled with freedom; conversely, a freeman may bear the spirit of a slave. Freedom is characterized by being raised by one’s spirit; the person and the people as a whole ascend through it, faithful to their inner essence… This is not true if one has the spirit of subservience, for the content of his life and his emotions are not defined by his spiritual character and identity, but rather in what is good and pleasant for the other, who has some control over him, whether it is legal or moral; it is that which the other finds to be good and pleasant.

In a case such as this, the freedom of the nation is an illusion. The way to true spiritual freedom includes a number of stages. At the first stage, it is clear what define its independent character: the Torah, “the greatness of the intellect.” The second stage is the formulation of principles, according to which its society and its state are constructed, not as an imitation of others. The third stage is to act with alacrity, in order to actualize this potential in all of the systems of authority and all spheres of life. In order to ensure progress in the process, there is a need for cyclical analysis: the national soul must be subject to a search for chametz (leaven) spiritually and psychologically, in order to analyze whether it clings to its independent aim and will or it is still subservient to the aims and wills of others, as Rav Kook (loc. cit.) writes:  

“When we search for chametz by the light of the candle, we also search the chambers of the heart, to remove the leaven of servitude which clings to our souls,” so that we can clean ourselves “of every stain of servitude, whether that of revealed servitude… or that of latent servitude, which is false colors on the surface, shallow freedom which misleads the blind masses.”

This long journey is rife with obstacles which must be eliminated, just like the elimination of chametz:[6]

These two types of liberty do not come — neither for a person in an individual way, nor for a people, a collective with a unique spirit — unless one eliminates from his domain all that prevents his freedom, which is his leaven, the leaven in the dough, which is far more hazardous in a time that the light of redemption shines upon it.

What is the meaning of Shabbat Ha-gadol nowadays? In this past generation, we have acquired three new days which delineate the process by which the Jewish people achieved true independence. On Yom Ha-atzmaut, we mark the end of the foreign dominion and the political freedom. On Yom Shichrur Yerushalayim, we note the renewed connection to Jerusalem and the site of the Temple, which is the source of our spiritual freedom. On Yom Ha-zikkaron, we come together to remember the fallen of Israel’s security forces, without whose sacrifice we could not merit all of these. Indeed, on Yom Ha-atzmaut, we commemorate a miracle on the order of that of Shabbat Ha-gadol, a critical turning point. As our master Rav Tzvi Yehuda Kook used to say, the great miracle of the fifth of Iyar was that God filled the hearts of Israel’s leaders with strength and fortitude, to declare the state despite the voices that discouraged this, despite the fact it was clear that such a declaration would lead to war with the five surrounding Arab armies.

However, there is an additional relevant viewpoint of Shabbat Ha-gadol for our generation. Sometimes, it appears that true freedom is a distant vision and the danger of despair is knocking at our door. However, on Shabbat Ha-gadol we remind ourselves that at the beginning of journey toward redemption, on Shabbat Ha-gadol in Egypt, we knew that the way was long and required patience, and there would be many difficulties on the way, that we would need to deal with them.

The eternal nation is not afraid of difficult, long paths. It climbs upwards knowing that the magnitude of the difficulty is reflected in the magnitude of the result. It embraces “the greatness of the intellect” and refreshes its strength, knowing that it must continue its journey through many generations, along the paths of redemption towards true freedom and complete salvation.

[1] Tur OC, ch. 430.

[2] Kedushat Levi, Parashat Yitro.

[3] Rav Kook, Ma’amarei Ha-Re’aaya, p. 163.

[4] Olat Re’iya, vol. II, 244.

[5] Ma’amarei Ha-Re’aya, p. 157.

[6] Rav Kook, Olat Re’iya, vol. II, 244.

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