There are many explanations for the term Shabbat HaGadol, which we celebrate this upcoming Shabbat. However, I like to think of Shabbat HaGadol in the context of its haftarah with Malakhi’s promise that Elijah is ushering in “The great and fearful day of the Lord...turning the hearts of parents to their children and children to their parents.” When we think about redemption, most of us turn to cosmic revolutions like the end of war, the ingathering of exiles, the restoration of the Temple, and, to cite my former Professor Neil Gillman’s drash on Chad Gadya’s messianic conclusion, the “death of death.” Yet the haftarah identifies the redemptive mission as being one of family reconciliation or perhaps reconciliation between generations.
Sometimes the seder feels like a plague for families, where all of the disconnect in values can be concentrated into this one event. Interestingly, Malakhi hints that it is the obligation of the older generation to attend to the experiences and insights of the young. This is the first stage of redemption, and it is, of course, the primary task of the seder.
Does your family gathering feel like the Shekhinah is descending, or like Gog and Magog, where you might prefer to be doing anything else but be with your family? Thank God, my family gatherings are relatively peaceful now, but I remember being the young zealot who made everyone crazy by insisting that they guzzle down the proper volume of wine in the specified time, and dragging out every aspect of the seder until the older generation was exhausted. In retrospect, my teenage persona was pretty intolerant, but somehow the older generation put up with me, and I seem to have grown out of it. I still drink my wine and munch my matzah, but I realize the purpose is that everyone present has the opportunity to engage in the great narrative of redemption in their own distinctive manner. The rituals are there to lead to an internal awareness, not to bludgeon one into a stupor. Maybe Elijah really did come to our seder!
There is a Hasidic drasha by Rabbi Shabta HaKohen Rappaport where he asks the question, “Why does the seder begin with kadeish and urchatz (sanctify and then cleanse)? Would not we say, “Depart from evil, rachtzah (cleanse), and then embrace the good, kadeish (sanctify)?” While it would be nice if everyone could be like Moses, purifying himself or herself and purging sin before accepting holiness, the fact is none of us are on that level. Rather, we must try to embrace holiness even in a state of impurity and trust in God’s compassion to be with us even before we are pure. Thus, we are in the state of kadeish and urchatz when starting the sanctification, proceeding bit by bit towards urchatz and rachtzah (cleansing or washing) until the final nirtzah (redemption) when we can hope that our service will truly be acceptable before God. The seder is thus starkly differentiated from the Korban Pesach procedure described in the Torah. There, the people needed to be purified first. Our seder is not so much a reenactment of the ancient ritual as it is a protocol for spiritual development until we can reach that stage. As it says in the final lines of the Haggadah, “ka’asher zakinu l’sadeir oto, kein nizkeh la’asoto”. As we are worthy to celebrate it this year, so we may perform it in future years coming into our final preparations for Pesach. I hope that for all of you, wherever you are, that the seder will be a time of inter-generational closeness and collective spiritual development. May the mitzvot and narratives of Pesach bring us all into a state of heightened appreciation of freedom, of closeness to God, and of responsibility to share these blessings with other people!
Rabbi Jeffrey Abraham