Archive for Shabbat Hagadol

Shabbat Hagadol: Ethics First

Copyright 2012 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: TzavShabbat Hagadol 


Every year, on the Shabbat before Pesach, we read a special haftarah, which from which this Shabbat may get its name: Shabbat Hagadol, or “The Great Sabbath.” (See alternative theories here and a summary of the haftarah here.)

There are many themes in this selection from the prophet Malachi, including a future day of redemption and the coming of the prophet Elijah, but what struck me this year were the opening verses:

“Then the offerings of Judah and Jerusalem shall be pleasing to the Lord as in the days of yore and in the years of old. But [first] I will step forward to contend against you, and I will act as a relentless accuser against those who have no fear of Me: Who practice sorcery, who commit adultery, who swear falsely, who cheat laborers of their hire, and who subvert [the cause of] the widow, orphan, and stranger, said the Lord of Hosts.” (Malachi 3:4-5)

Before we even get to more obvious connections to Passover, like redemption, reconciliation of families, and justice brought to oppressors, this text reminds us of a basic Jewish principle: ethics precede spirituality. Before we can enter the Templeto bring its offerings- or our local “temples” to bring our prayers and religious acts- we have to be right in our relationships and dealings in community. To put it another way, before we can clean up our chametz, we have to clean up our act.

This calls to mind the famous haftarah from Yom Kippur:

” Is such the fast I desire,

A day for men to starve their bodies?
Is it bowing the head like a bulrush . . . . 
No, this is the fast I desire . . . .: 
To let the oppressed go free;
To break off every yoke.
 It is to share your bread with the hungry,
And to take the wretched poor into your home . . . “
  (Isaiah 58:57, abridged)

Note that  Pesach and Yom Kippur, which are probably the two most complex religious events of the Jewish year, days in which  we go through elaborate texts, prayers, rituals, laws and customs, also have texts which remind us that religious acts do not advance us at all if we haven’t first done the inner work of ethical recommitment. How can we sit down on Seder night and remember the slavery inEgypt if we’re still acting in ways that oppress others today?

Please note, the prophets were not saying that religious acts are of no use; on the contrary, they saw the ancient Templeservice as a sign of covenant between God and the Jewish people. A renewed spirituality was their goal; ethical renewal was the price of admission. Amid all the cleaning, shopping, cooking, arranging, traveling, preparing that typically happens in the weeks before Passover, the prophet reminds us: religion without ethics is an empty shell. Preparing for the holiday means looking within, and asking at least a few questions our own roles in bringing freedom, compassion, and justice to a world that needs it now as much as our ancestors did then.

Shabbat Shalom,



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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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Shabbat HaGadol: Partners in Redemption

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Shabbat HaGadol

Tomorrow is Shabbat HaGadol- the “Great Shabbat”- so called (probably)
because of the special haftarah, or prophetic reading, always read on
the Shabbat right before Pesach. This year, it’s just a few hours
before the first Seder, but still, the idea is to get us thinking
about the meaning of the holiday in the middle of all the logistics
that go into preparing for it.

Thus the main theme of tomorrow’s haftarah is redemption- the healing
of the world from its brokenness along with justice for the oppressed.
The haftarah ends with a promise that Elijah the prophet will announce
the future redemption:

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

OK, so far, so good: the haftarah reminds us to look forward to a
future day of justice and peace, which is the ultimate theme of the
Pesach seder itself. We do not- repeat, do not- recall the servititude
in Mitzrayim just to wallow in sorrow for a bitter past, but to
strengthen our faith in a brighter future by deeply reminding
ourselves that God stands with those in need of justice, and it’s our
job to be partners in the enterprise of redemption. Mitzrayim, of
course, means Egypt, but I believe it’s better understood as an
archetype of a place of oppression rather than the geography near the

If we’re going to be partners in the work of redemption, the haftarah
reminds us to begin with ourselves:

“Then the offerings of Judah and Jerusalem shall be pleasing to the
Lord as in the days of yore and in the years of old. But [first] I
will step forward to contend against you, and I will act as a
relentless accuser against those who have no fear of Me: Who practice
sorcery, who commit adultery, who swear falsely, who cheat laborers of
their hire, and who subvert [the cause of] the widow, orphan, and
stranger, said the Lord of Hosts.” (Malachi 3:4-5)

Pesach is about hope, but it’s incomplete without moral
self-examination. We can’t hope for a redemption of the world if we
haven’t cleaned up our ethics along with our closets and tended to the
neediest among us. The Seder is just dinner if the story of our
ancestors in slavery doesn’t promote reflection on who today needs
redemption just as much as they did.

The prophet Malachi reminds us that redemption doesn’t happen by
itself: it happens when we, the human community, internalize the
Passover message of hope, compassion and human dignity. There will
come a “great day of the Lord,” but not without human partnership.

With best wishes for a happy and healthy holiday for all,


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Achrei Mot: Intimacy and Dignity

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Achrei Mot and Shabbat Hagadol

It’s springtime, and so Pesach cleaning is fast upon us. . . but
we have one more regular Torah portion to read before the
special readings for Passover.

The Shabbat right before Pesach/ Passover, coming up this
week, is called “Shabbat Hagadol,” or “The Great Shabbat,” and
it is generally accepted that this day gets its name from the
special haftarah [prophetic reading], which ends with a prophecy
of the “great and mighty Day of the Lord.” The haftarah on
Shabbat Hagadol is part of the general message of redemption
and hope which is central to the Pesach holiday- more about that
in a separate email.

The Torah portion for Shabbat Hagadol can vary with the
calendar; this year, it is connected to Achrei Mot, which is a
difficult parsha, usually read with the next one, Kedoshim. Achrei
Mot first describes the priestly ritual for Yom Kippur, commands
the Israelites to make sacrificial offerings in only one place, then
prohibits eating anything with blood in it, and ends with a long
list of forbidden sexual relationships. This list of sexual
prohibitions begins and ends with a warning not to copy the
practices of other nations. Most of the specific prohibitions begin
with a warning (presumably, to men), “do not uncover the
nakedness of. . . ” and then names a specific relationship.

Because of the unusual wording in this section of the Torah, the
general idea of forbidden sexual relationships has taken on the
name “arayot,” from the word for “naked.” As Conservative Jews,
we may have variety of historical and moral interpretations of
certain specifics in this chapter, most notably the blanket
condemnation of homosexual acts, but on a much more general
level, I think it’s worth thinking about the wording the Torah uses
to describe what it doesn’t like. “Uncovering the nakedness” is
obviously a euphemism for a sexual act, but it also conveys a
more general ethical sensibility of modesty and privacy,
especially in the most intimate areas of our lives.

Anybody who glances at the magazine covers in drugstores or
supermarkets knows that modesty and privacy aren’t the guiding
values of contemporary North American society- with two clicks
of a mouse I can see or read about the most private details of
other people’s lives, and not just celebrities. Think back just a
few weeks, for example, to the raging controversy over Terry
Schiavo, and how the newspapers, magazines, and broadcasts
carried graphic images of Terry half-covered in her hospital
gown, or with her feeding tube exposed.

I find it fascinating that those people within our society most
loudly interested in “Biblical values” had no apparent problem
with Terry Schiavo’s medical procedures being part of the public
record for (quite literally) all to see. Now, an obvious rejoinder is
that medical procedures- or divorce proceedings, or financial
records- are nothing shameful, and that people who take their
lives into the public sphere can’t reveal only the parts they
choose. I suppose that’s technically correct, but I also wonder if
the Bible doesn’t call us to a sense of modesty which is not only
about sex, but also about dignity, the dignity of choosing to keep
some things within our most trusted relationships.

To put it another way, only an ethic of modesty- in a general
sense- creates the possibility of intimacy, which has to be freely
chosen if it is to be authentic. To “uncover the nakedness,” to
use the direct-object language of Achrei Mot, is to remove volition
from intimacy, and thus render it an ethical abomination. Carried
into our sphere of public discourse, I wonder if we who take the
Bible’s ethics seriously might not argue that not everything which
can be revealed should be revealed, and that a media culture
which leaves nothing to privacy undermines the very possibility of
choosing to uncover oneself within the safe boundaries of family
and intimate friendship. That seems to be the model the Torah
advocates, and which still to this day stands in tension with the
society which surrounds us.

You can find the text of this week’s Torah reading and haftarah

PS- My recent thinking about the relationship between privacy
and dignity was initiated by a recent article in The New Republic,
“On the Shamelessness of Our Public Sphere,” by Rochelle
Gurstein. It’s a good read.

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