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First Steps

2 minute read

On the Shabbos before the Exodus, the Jewish People designated one lamb per household to be the first Korban Pesach and kept it in the home for a few days before Pesach. They would slaughter the lamb and smear the blood on their doors to identify their homes as Jewish, and their families would be saved from the destructive forces in play on the night of the tenth Plague.

On the Shabbos HaGadol, the Shabbos before Pesach, we honor our ancestors following the command to set aside the lamb.

But it doesn’t align with the way we commemorate things in Judaism. Designating the lamb was a one-off instruction in Egypt; it was never performed again, and we don’t do anything to reenact it.

If designating the lamb was small enough that we don’t have a similar ritual, what was the point of the ritual at all?

Designating the lamb was not a symbolic indication of their intent to eat it; our sages teach that lambs were sacred creatures in Egypt, meaning that designating a lamb for sacrifice was also a form of sacrilege to Egyptian deities, upholding the yet unspoken second of the Ten Commandments – to have no other gods or entities.

As R’ Shlomo Farhi explains, it might have been a small gesture, but it was significant because it marked a rejection of Egyptian religion. In a sense, the second commandment to reject other gods precedes the first commandment, awareness of the One God. It is insufficient to add the Creator to the pantheon of gods you believe in; you need to believe in the Creator and no other; designating the lamb was a small gesture with enormous significance. It only follows that for us, the ritual would be empty. We believe in the One God; we don’t believe in other powers. 

As the Sfas Emes notes, setting the lamb aside was a one-off instruction in Egypt, never imitated later on in any commandments; it is not the action that we need to remember. Instead, we remember the symbolic move the brave Jewish People took, a tentative but concrete tangible first step. 

Shabbos HaGadol also has an element of repentance out of love. Pesach demonstrates the loving relationship between God and the Jewish People; God will act for us before we deserve it. The Jewish People earned eternity and redemption with a token gesture, but a token gesture that gave a foretaste of everything to follow.

Our sages suggest that if a person creates an opening the size of a needle, God can expand the breakthrough into a grand ballroom. Designating the lamb wasn’t a big deal at all, but it doesn’t exist in isolation. In the context of our history, that first baby step meant everything because everything followed from that first step. 

A journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.

Shabbos HaGadol; Shabbos of Greatness

2 minute read

The Shabbos before Pesach is called Shabbos HaGadol – The Great Shabbos. It commemorates the first Shabbos HaGadol in Egypt five days before the Exodus. 

On that day, the Jewish People received the first commandment they would ever fulfill, a one-time law that applied only to that Shabbos and never again. They were to designate one lamb per household and keep it in the home for a few days, and the lamb would be the first Korban Pesach. They would slaughter the lamb and smear the blood on their doors to identify their homes as Jewish, and their families would be saved from the destructive forces in play on the night of the tenth Plague.

Multiple elements in this distinctive vignette stick out as highly irregular. 

Everyone understands how anniversaries and birthdays work; the Jewish calendar is full of anniversaries. When the date of an event comes back around, you remember what happened on that day in history.

But unlike almost any holiday or event you can think of, Shabbos HaGadol is specifically not on the calendar date of the event. We don’t commemorate the legendary ritual five days before Pesach; we celebrate it on the day of the week it fell on – Shabbos. That’s not how anniversaries work; that’s not how we commemorate any other significant date or event. Your friend’s birthday is on the tenth of April; it will never matter that they were born on the second Tuesday in April!

Why do we celebrate this anniversary on Shabbos, a day of the week, rather than a fixed calendar date?

The Sfas Emes teaches that Shabbos frames the boundary and transitions from one week and the next. It is at once the culmination of what came before while setting the tone of what is to come.

Shabbos is the masterpiece of Creation, the finishing touch, and the beginning of everything that follows. The very first Shabbos is about peace and serenity, completion and perfection, redemption and rest with satisfying purpose. Shabbos is one of the cornerstones of Judaism, and it follows why; it lends context and meaning to almost everything else.

The Jewish People didn’t yet observe Shabbos in Egypt. Still, by giving them a commandment on Shabbos, they could tap into the spirit of Shabbos, receiving a dose of that peace and serenity, a taste of redemption and purpose that could give them some fuel and momentum for the imminent Exodus.

It wasn’t about the calendar date; it was about connecting with Shabbos for the first time and what Shabbos did for them.

Lingering here in the background is another prominent issue. These people had survived nine plagues without a scratch, passively and without lifting a finger. They were safe automatically; they weren’t the targets of God’s works in Egypt. And yet now, at the last hurdle, they were suddenly in potential danger, and they needed to proactively take the bold step of taking this lamb on Shabbos and smearing its blood on the doorway to be safe. 

The Sfas Emes reminds us that these people had ancestral merit but little of their own; they kept their names, clothing, and language, sure, but then literally nothing else. In proactively carrying out the instruction to designate the lamb, the Jewish People took their first independent steps to move toward God, transforming them from passive victims into actors with agency; they grew up, earning the capacity to be great. 

So perhaps it’s not the Great Shabbos; it’s the Shabbos of Greatness, the Shabbos we became capable of Greatness.