Shabbat Hagadol: The Truly Great Day

Ilana Goldstein Saks headshot

Ilana Goldstein Saks studied at Midreshet Lindenbaum in 1987-88 and again as part of the Bruriah Scholars program from 1993-1996, and she taught there from 1993-2000.  She has taught at a number of midrashot and schools in Israel. 


On the eve of yetziat Mitzraim, the exodus from Egypt, Am Yisrael packed its bags, tied its shoes, took up its walking sticks and partook of the korban pesach, the Pascal lamb (Exodus 12:11). They marked their doorways with its blood as a sign of belonging to Hashem’s nation. This, together with their readiness to make a hasty exit, made them worthy of God’s benevolence, allowing them to be passed-over when Hashem swept through Egypt, smiting her first-born sons (12:7,13). This process of leaving, of Am Yisrael’s differentiation from Mitzraim, actually began four days earlier, on the tenth of Nisan – the original Shabbat Hagadol (the Shabbat just before Passover) according to one midrash – when in an act of defiance they collectively set aside so many “sacred” Egyptians lambs, to be sacrificed to the God of Israel (12:3). That night, the line of division was clear, separating between God’s oppressed people and the people who had oppressed them.

Almost a millennium later, in a speech destined to become the yearly haftarah for Shabbat HaGadol, the prophet Malachi described a remarkably similar event. His audience was the confused descendants of those original Israelites who were back in the Land of Israel after the destruction of the first Beit Hamikdash, the Temple in Jerusalem, and the Babylonian exile. Unlike their Egyptian-born ancestors they did not feel Hashem’s presence. They complained that despite their having rebuilt the Beit Hamikdash, God was not in their midst; that although they heeded the call to return and rebuild, Hashem did not return to rebuild with them. They saw no point in following God, because it seemed that those who didn’t were better off (Malachi 3:14-15).

A time is coming, Malachi reassured them, Yom Hashem HaGadol, the Great Day of God, when Hashem will have compassion for those who truly follow him (3:17).

For lo! That day is at hand, burning like an oven. All the arrogant and all the doers of evil shall be straw, and the day that is coming—said the LORD of Hosts—shall burn them to ashes and leave of them neither stock nor boughs. But for you who revere My name a sun of victory shall rise to bring healing. (3:19-20)

One cannot help but notice the parallel to that night back in Egypt – arguably the original template for Yom Hashem; both days of judgement when Hashem punishes some and spares others. In contrast to the event in Egypt, however, in Malachi’s vision, God distinguishes not between Am Yisrael and its enemy, but between those who are evil and those who are good (3:18) – sifting out those “who practice sorcery, who commit adultery, who swear falsely, who cheat as laborers of their hire, and who subvert [the cause of] the widow, orphan, and stranger” (3:5) from those who are loyal and fair and kind.

Somewhere between that distant redemption in Egypt and the day that Malachi addressed the people something had changed. Yom Hashem had become an excuse for Am Yisrael to avoid responsibility – their chosenness transformed into a privilege rather than a responsibility. As they became more and more corrupt they would point to the Beit Hamikdash in their midst, and the sacrifices brought within – and the fact that God had brought mighty Egypt to its knees just for them – and be confident that God would always be with them, no matter what (see, for example, Jeremiah 7:1-4, Micha 3:9-11, Amos 3:1-2, Isaiah 1: 10-17). “Woe to you who wish for the day of the Lord!” the prophet Amos warned generations before Malachi. “Why should you want the day of the Lord? It shall be darkness, not light!” (Amos 5:18). The people mistakenly believed that like their experience in Egypt, Yom Hashem would always be in their favor. The prophets tried in vain to teach them that the future Yom Hashem would favor only those who had internalized the messages of that Egyptian experience – to be kind to the downtrodden and faithful to the God who had shown them kindness.

Pesach – particularly the seder – is a holiday about the past, but it is a mistake to think of it as merely a commemoration. As we make our way through the Hagaddah, we first recount the story of leaving Egypt, but past and present quickly blur as we not only declare “in every generation a person is obligated to regard him – or her – self as if he or she had come out of Egypt,” but also “not just one alone has risen against us to destroy us, but in every generation they rise against us to destroy us; and the Holy One, blessed be He, saves us from their hand.” By the end of the seder, we have segued to the future, as we sing with a mix of longing and revelry (helped along by four glasses of wine) of the building of the Beit Hamikdash, and we imagine celebrating next year – year after year – in a rebuilt Jerusalem.

Ultimately, Pesach is about redemption – past and future. If the story of the exodus is the explanation of redemption past, Malachi’s Yom Hashem is a roadmap for achieving the redemption to come.

“Then the offerings of Judah and Jerusalem shall be pleasing to the LORD as in the days of yore and in the years of old.”

Then we will celebrate, once again, in a truly rebuilt Jerusalem. 

Shabbat Shalom!


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