Shabbat Hagadol, “the great Shabbat”, is the name given to the Shabbat before Pesach. The major element of Shabbat Hagadol is the special haftarah reading from the prophet Malachi, who speaks of the future day in which the hearts of children will be turned toward their parents and parents to their children. This can be understood as our understanding what our ancestors gifted us and what we should bequeath to our progeny.
Serendipitously, this year Shabbat Hagadol coincides with Parasha Tzav, “command”, bringing to our attention of what it means to be commanded. Throughout the Torah we are commanded to do all kinds of things, and commanded as well to avoid all kinds of things. While the Torah does not present a legal system, but rather laws interspersed through narrative, over time, a system of legal commands has been distilled from it. The first legal compendium is the Mishna, finalised around 200 CE; in the Talmud around 500 CE came the notion of “613 mitzvot” and in the Middle Ages legal codes around these mitzvot developed. The assumption underlying this legal, or halakhic, system is that God created the world and then singled out the Jews through the gift of the literal Torah to be the ones to perform this extensive system of mitzvot.
Today we see a major rift in this system being exposed in Israel, with ripples being felt around the Jewish world. The legal system has been built on the assumption that the Torah is the literal word of God and that are there is an exclusive group of rabbis which has the absolute right to determine how God’s word should be applied in these times. In contrast to that position there is a “positive historical approach”, presented primarily in the Masorti or conservative movement, that understands Torah as an ancestral communication with God (however God may be understood). Further, there are progressive and liberal Jews who champion personal autonomy and secular Jews who have a tangential connection to Torah. All these Jews exist in the land of Israel and outside it – and now in the land of Israel there is an attempt to make Torah law as understood by exclusive rabbis the law of the land. This move, while incipient, requires each and every Jew wherever we live to consider what it means to us to be “commanded”.
The prophecy of Malachi we read at this time can inspire our voice. The hearts of children are turned to parents, and parents to children. We think of what our ancestors wanted of us and we imagine how best to transmit this to our children. Our ancestors established the parameters of interpretation as it says of Torah in Proverbs 3:19: “Its ways are ways of pleasantness and all its paths are peace.” We can study the Torah’s teachings for inspiration to live a life that is good, true and holy, and transmit that vision to our children and children’s children. As we gather at our Seder tables, let us speak of how we want to take the best of our past to create the best for our future.
Rabbi Jeffrey B. Kamins