The Great Sabbath

The Great Sabbath

From the desk of Rabbi David Lyon

Shabbat HaGadol, the Great Sabbath, is observed one week before the beginning of Passover. It’s so-called, in part, because it was on the Great Sabbath that the rabbi gave a long (not necessarily great) sermon on the details surrounding Passover observance. Such practice was long abandoned by modern rabbis in favor of sermons on Passover themes and its meaning. This year, Shabbat HaGadol coincides with the weekly Torah portion in Leviticus, called Metzora.

Metzora’s subject is skin ailments and other bodily emissions that caused persons to be deemed “unclean” and separated from the community until they were eligible to return. In ancient times, the High Priest or Cohen observed the afflictions and judged whether the persons were clean or unclean. When the word “metzora” was translated into other languages, including English, it was called leprosy. It was the best translation because the effects of leprosy and metzora were virtually the same. The metzora or the leper were feared and isolated until they were no longer afflicted. At the end of their infirmity, they re-entered the community along with prescribed sacrifices and offerings.

Today, the overlap of Shabbat HaGadol and Metzora is significant. The festival holiday of Passover focuses on liberation from bondage. Parashat Metzora is about physical ailments that create emotional and spiritual estrangement, which are forms of bondage, too. In both the Exodus and the Leviticus accounts, the meta-goal was community. The goal of the Exodus was physical liberation to find spiritual revelation at Mt. Sinai. It would be a new beginning bound by a covenant with God symbolized by Torah and its teachings. No one was left behind who didn’t want to be abandoned. Likewise, nowhere do we read in Leviticus that the High Priest failed to welcome back persons who were once afflicted. The prescriptions in Leviticus and rabbinic commentaries focus on the goal of preserving the community as an “Am Kadosh,” a holy people worthy of God’s blessings and God’s Torah.

On this Shabbat HaGadol, we prepare to welcome to our Passover tables “all who are hungry,” and to begin the Seder saying together, “My father was a fugitive Aramean.” We are all hungry. We crave family, friends, and engagement. We crave belonging and community. Once we were all strangers until someone welcomed us inside. After we heard each other’s stories, we became friends who belonged. Now we tell the Passover story, not to repeat something we know, but to be sure that we never forget and for the next generation to know for themselves. In Torah we learn, “That was for the Lord a night of vigil to bring them out of the land of Egypt; that same night is the Lord’s, one of vigil for all the children of Israel throughout the ages” (Exodus 12:42).

Passover begins on the night of Friday, April 15, 2022, with first Seder. Shabbat services will be held at 5:30pm in the Gordon Chapel and Livestream. On Saturday, April 16th, at 10:30am, first day Festival Passover services will be held in the Gordon Chapel and Livestream.

From my family to yours, and on behalf of Congregation Beth Israel, may your Passover tables be filled with family, friends, and guests, who crave community and freedom.

The Great Sabbath 3