Shabbat Hagadol: Beautiful and Humbling

Copyright Neal Joseph Loevinger 2010

Torah Portion Tzav / Shabbat Hagadol

In the portion Tzav, Aharon and his sons are given instructions for their duties as priest. prior to their dedication as priests, they have a seven day period of separation and preparation. Shabbat Hagadol, the “Great Shabbat,” is the Shabbat just before Pesach; a special haftararah has the theme of future redemption.


It’s a few days before Pesach, and that means this Shabbat is Shabbat Hagadol, perhaps (or perhaps not) named for a phrase which occurs in the final line of the haftarah we read right before Pesach:

“Lo, I will send the prophet Elijah to you before
the coming of the awesome, fearful day of the Lord!”  (Malachi 3:23)

The JPS translation above renders hagadol v’h’norah as “awesome” and “fearful” but other translations are plausible, since gadol can mean big or great and norah could mean amazing, humbling, or inspiring reverential awe.

Elijah the prophet is associated with the coming of messianic times, in the sense of a great healing of the world from evil and war; we put out a special cup for Elijah at the Seder in order to make clear that our reenactment of the past is really about hope for the future. That is, just as there was an “awesome and fearful” day in Egypt, when our ancestors left the House of Bondage, there will be an even greater day in the future, when the entire world will be free of chains and oppression.

Sounds great, but do remember, the day that is “great” is also “fearful.” In other words- don’t forget that change is hard! Even leaving Egypt wasn’t easy- getting used to a new life brought conflict, disorientation and negativity among the Israelites. Even the House of Bondage can be a “comfort zone” if that’s all you’ve ever known; leaving it will require changing oneself from the inside out, which is a tremendous challenge.

There’s a certain strain of religious thinking in America that minimizes the potential pain of spiritual growth – think of New Age books which promise only serenity, or the “prosperity gospel” which promises riches to the faithful. Life isn’t like that, and as the Seder itself teaches, there is often bitterness mixed with the joy, because – it bears repeating- change is hard. Matzah represents our liberation, but we eat it with maror, bitter herbs, because we must not pretend that redemption comes without cost. Think about it: leaving Egypt meant changing everything the Israelites ever knew, about themselves and others and even God.

Is our journey less challenging? We proceed, aware that the work of redemption is both great and awesome, beautiful and humbling, necessary and fearful. That’s what it means to have faith.

With best wishes for a warm and joyous Pesach,

Shabbat Shalom,


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