Passover: The Great Sabbath

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Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the Great and Awesome Day of the Lord, that he may turn the heart of the fathers back to their children, and the heart of the children back to their fathers.

Those words, the final words uttered by the prophet Malachi, the final prophecy recorded in the Hebrew Bible, are the highlight of the scriptural portion read in the synagogue this week. In fact, Jews know this weekend as Shabbat HaGadol, the Great Sabbath, in its honor. Shabbat HaGadol is always observed the weekend before Passover, but almost seems out of sorts with the Passover spirit.

Passover is, first and foremost, a holiday of memory and commemoration. Bitter herbs are eaten at the Passover Seder to reexperience the bitterness of servitude, and matzah, unleavened bread, is eaten to reenact the haste of the redemption. The Passover Haggadah, the text read at the Seder, states that, “in every generation, one is obligated to see himself as if he, personally, left Egypt.” Four cups of wine are consumed in celebration, and the evening concludes with songs of praise and thanksgiving. Yet, before the Seder concludes, we pour a fifth cup of wine, called the Cup of Elijah the Prophet. The door is opened, in anticipation of Elijah, and the Messianic Era he heralds. Thinking about the future, however, cannot help but take something away from our celebration of the past. How can we transport ourselves back to the Exodus and wait for redemption all at the same time?

On one level, then, this scriptural passage is out of synch with the Passover. On another level, though, it epitomizes what Passover is really all about. We generally see the Exodus from Egypt as the end of a process, the culmination of a story of slavery and redemption. In truth, though, as the Exodus comes to an end, the Israelites found themselves on the bank of the Red Sea with the vast wilderness ahead of them. Their journey had only just begun. Even as they sang God’s praises in celebration of the redemption they had just experienced, they knew that leaving Egypt would only be truly meaningful if it led to further development as a nation, if their path would eventually lead to Sinai, and ultimately to the Promised Land. After all, if they were only going to wander aimlessly through the desert, they might as well have stayed in Egypt.

And so it is for us. Some people live their lives completely in the past. They relive past glories even as their present lives slide into mediocrity. Often, by the time we encounter them, it is hard to imagine that they ever were capable of great accomplishment in the first place. They might have once left Egypt, but they are now, sadly, lost in the wilderness. Others live lives that are entirely goal-oriented, always pointed toward the future. Too often, though, they are so intensely focused on where they are going that they have no sense of where they are, or where they have come from. They sacrifice their happiness, their families and themselves in their relentless drive forward. They do not take the time to appreciate where they are, and take few lessons from the past. They may think they know exactly where the Promised Land is, but they have completely forgotten the Exodus from Egypt.

The Passover Seder begins by focusing on the past. We reexperience the servitude of the Israelites, and then their redemption. At the same time, we know that the Exodus was not the end, but only the beginning. The Israelites may have left Egypt, but we are still a long way from the Promised Land. The world is still not redeemed. People are still oppressed by tyrants and regimes as malevolent as the Biblical Pharaohs. Communities and entire nations still struggle against the forces that bind them, whether physically, economically, or even religiously.

How appropriate, then, to finish the Seder with a Cup of Elijah, a cup that is poured but not tasted. In light of the four cups of celebration, there can be no stronger symbol of our hopes and prayers for a truly free and enlightened world. By celebrating our past, by internalizing where we’ve been and where we are, we are ready to chart the course for our future.

Perhaps this is why Elijah’s final mission is to reunite parents with their children. Parents and grandparents represent the present and past, the world as it is and how it was given to us. Children represent the future. If there is a generation gap, if parents and children do not understand and respect each other, if those who push toward the future no longer care about the past and present, and if the present finds itself confused by progress and advancement, then we are lost, aimlessly wandering through the wilderness of history. In terms of American history, there are those who try to rewind to 1795 and there are those who do not trust anyone over 30. Elijah represents generations working in sync with each other. Younger generations take pride in their predecessors’ victories, and build on them toward the future. Older generations see their work continued through their descendants, and provide their wisdom and guidance.

Passover is indeed a time to celebrate freedom, on physical, emotional and even spiritual levels. Preceding Passover with Shabbat HaGadol reminds us, though, that realizing how far we’ve come should only focus our resolve on fully achieving freedom, for ourselves, our community and for the entire world. That is the true Promised Land; that is Elijah’s ultimate message.

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