Author: Addison, Howard A
Date published: April 14, 2011
Journal code: JWEX
AHAREI MOT, Leviticus 16:1-18:30
This week Jews throughout the world will observe Shabbat HaGadol, the Great Sabbath that precedes Pesach. Over the years, numerous sages have tried to explain how this Shabbat got its name and why it might be greater than any other. Some point to the concluding words of its Haftorah, which promises a reconciliation of parents and children prior to "the great and awesome day of the Lord."
Just as Pesach memorializes the first act in God's redemptive plan, the prophet Malachi's words direct our attention this Shabbat towards the great salvation that will be ultimately achieved during Messianic times.
Others consider it a great miracle that the Egyptians did nothing to stop the Israelites as they prepared for the first Passover seder and the deliverance from bondage that would come the next dawn. A few wags even suggested that this Shabbat is nicknamed "Great" because rabbis often preach at great length that day on the laws and themes of Pesach.
The late 17th-century Italian scholar, Rabbi Chizkiya DiSiIo, offered us another insight in his legal commentary, Pri Chodosh. There, he indicates that among its many connotations, the word gadol indicates an adult. On this Shabbat, according to DiSiIo, our Israelite ancestors passed from a state of adolescent passivity into true adulthood.
After being intimidated for decades by the taskmasters' lashes, the Hebrews seized the initiative by securing their Paschal lambs on that Shabbat in defiance of their oppressors. The importance of this mature, courageous act is reflected in the Haggadah, which quotes the Torah's assertion, "this was the rea-, son God acted on my behalf when I went forth from Egypt." In effect, that first Shabbat HaGadol served as the collective B'nei Mitzvah of the People Israel.
A similar theme is sounded in the Torah reading for this week, which describes the first Yom Kippur. The name of the sedra, Acharei Mot, speaks of Aaron's mission to seek atonement for his people after his two elder sons' untimely deaths. The day that was to mark Aaron's greatest triumph, his investiture as the High Priest, was marred when Nadav and Avihu brought unbidden offerings to the altar and forfeited their lives.
Piled on top of Aaron's loss of faith during the sin of the Golden Calf, this second tragedy could have proved his undoing. Instead, the Torah states, "... with this shall Aaron enter the Holy." What was "this?" Aaron's deepened wisdom and compassion, born of hardship, that allowed him to enter the sanctum and passionately plead his people's cause.
It was that same depth of wisdom and compassion that impelled him to pursue peace and reconcile the alienated and those estranged from each other, so that at his death all Israel mourned Aaron's passing. Perhaps it was Adirei Mot, his response to loss that truly transformed Aaron into a Kohen Gadol, not merely a High Priest but one whose newfound maturity trailed ever expanding blessings in its wake.
Arthur Golden, in Memoirs of a Geisha, wrote: "Adversity is like a strong wind. It tears away from us all but the things that cannot be torn, so that we see ourselves as we really are." As we seek to purge our own chametz with the arrival of Pesach, may we, like Aaron and the generation of the Exodus, gain ever clearer visions riot only of who we are, but who we might become.
And may the maturity we gain from such insight help us transform this Shabbat into a truly Great Sabbath and the Holy Days ahead into moments of authentic liberation for ourselves and those whose lives we may touch.
Rabbi Howard A. Addison is the religious leader of Congregation Melrose B'nai Israel Emanu-El in Cheltenham. E-mail him at: firstname.lastname@example.org.