Friday, April 15, 2011

Shabbos HaGadol 5646 First Ma'amar

Why is the Shabbos before Pesach called Shabbos HaGadol/The Great Shabbos? 

The Midrash[1] in this week’s parsha cites a pasuk from Tehilim (27:1-3), “ה' אוֹרִי וְיִשְׁעִי ... אִם־תָּקוּם עָלַי מִלְחָמָה בְּזֹאת אֲנִי בוֹטֵחַ/God is my light and my salvation … though war rises against me, in this I trust.”  David HaMelech is teaching us that we must trust in God as our light and salvation rather than rely on our own knowledge and wisdom.

Chazal[2] relate this trust to the faith that Moshe Rabbeinu exhorted us to have at the splitting of the Red Sea, “ה' יִלָּחֵם לָכֶם וְאַתֶּם תַּחֲרִישׁוּן/God will fight for you and you will be silent.” (Shmos 14:14)  By being silent rather than relying on ourselves we ensure that God will fight for us.  The Midrash continues that certainly if we give praise to God, He will fight for us.  The Sfas Emes understands that this Midrash is teaching us that there is a fundamental difference between performing mitzvos that we were commanded and acting on the basis of our own knowledge and wisdom. 

We learn the importance of approaching God through the commandments from the tragic death of Aharon’s two sons Nadav and Avihu who were killed for bringing a strange fire onto the altar, a fire that God had not commanded them to bring.  Chazal teach us that Nadav and Avihu were righteous.[3]  They acted for the sake of Heaven.  Why were they punished?  The Chiddushei HaRim[4] teaches that the primary sin of Nadav and Avihu was that they performed a service that they were not commanded.

This concept forms the basis for understanding why the Shabbos before Pesach is called Shabbos HaGadol.  Chazal tell us[5] that the 10th of Nissan at the time of the Exodus fell on Shabbos.  Moshe Rabbeinu instructed us to designate a lamb on this day in preparation for the Pesach sacrifice four days later.[6]  This day was highly significant since taking the lamb was the very first mitzvah that we fulfilled as a nation.

Even though we fulfilled mitzvos beforehand – the Midrash[7] teaches us that Moshe Rabbeinu requested and received permission from Pharaoh to instate the Shabbos as a day of rest – still, Chazal teach us that it is greater to fulfill a mitzvah that we are commanded than one that we are not commanded – גָדוֹל הַמְצוּוֶה וְעוֹשֶׂה מִמִי שֶׁאֵינוֹ מְצוּוֶה וְעוֹשֶׂה.[8] 

Taking the lamb was the first mitzvah that God commanded us to do.  On this Shabbos our essence changed just as the essence of a child who comes of age changes.  The child’s mitzvos that he performs before becoming a bar/bat mitzvah are within the framework of his education.  The mitzvos the child performs once he comes of age are essentially different.  They are the real thing.

In fact, the Midrash[9] in Shir HaShirim explains the following pasuk in a similar vein.  לְרֵיחַ שְׁמָנֶיךָ טוֹבִים שֶׁמֶן תּוּרַק שְׁמֶךָ .../Because of the fragrance of your fine oils, your name is flowing aromatic oil …” (Shir HaShirim 1:3)  According to the Midrash this pasuk is a metaphor for performing the mitzvos.  Our forefathers performed the mitzvos even though they were not commanded.  They are compared to the fragrance of fine oils.  We perform mitzvos because we were commanded.  We are compared to the very oil itself.  Even though our forefathers,  who intuited the mitzvos, were obviously on a much higher spiritual level than us, the mitzvos that we fulfill have more impact, as it were, because we were commanded.

While God did not command us to keep the Shabbos until after we left Egypt, still, our approach to performing mitzvos changed on this Shabbos.  In a sense, with the first commandment – the taking of the lamb – we came of age.  Before this Shabbos, we kept Shabbos as child before he becomes a bar-mitzvah.  From this Shabbos onward, we kept Shabbos like an adult.  For this reason this Shabbos is called Shabbos HaGadol.  Our relationship to Shabbos changed from a child’s relationship to that of an adult.

[1] VaYikra R. 21:1
[2] Mechilta BeShalach Masechta deVaYehi 2
[3] VaYikra R. 12:2, Bamidbar R. 2:23
[4] Chidushei HaRim Shemini
[5] According to Shabbos 87a
[6] Shmos 12:3,21
[7] Shmos R. 1:28
[8] Kidushin 31a
[9] Shir HaShirim R. 1:3:1

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