Looking Glasses of the Soul
The Shabbat immediately preceding Passover has a special name. It is called Shabbat HaGadol, "the Great Shabbat."
The Tur (Orach Chaim, ch. 430) explains that in the year of the Exodus the 10th day of Nissan fell on Shabbat. Thus, the Passover lamb, which had to be purchased four days before the holiday -- On the tenth of this month they shall take for themselves, each man, a lamb or kid... (Exodus 12:3) -- was purchased on that Shabbat.
The lamb in Egypt had a status similar to the cow in present day India. It was a sacred animal, as Moses stated to Pharaoh:
Behold, if we were to slaughter the deity of Egypt in their sight, will they not stone us (Exodus 8:22).
Nevertheless, the Egyptians, who were perfectly aware of what the Jews were intending to do with the lambs, were constrained to remain silent and were able to raise no protest. This was a great miracle and therefore the Shabbat on which it happened is called the "Great Shabbat."
However, we are not the first to point out that the great day marking the anniversary of this miracle should then be the 10th of Nisan, no matter on which day of the week it may fall, rather than Shabbat. In any case a positive plethora of amazing miracles lead up to the Exodus. Why should this particular one, which seems to be relatively minor in comparison with some of the others, have the power to bequeath the title "great" to its annual anniversary?
To answer this question we have to undertake a mental journey of several stages.
The first begins with the Haggadah. According to tradition we read the Haggadah for the first time on this "Great Shabbat," or specifically the portion of the Haggadah that contains the answer to the famous "Four Questions" of the Mah Nishtano.
OLDEST JEWISH TEXT
The Haggadah is possibly the oldest Jewish liturgical text. No part of Torah has had the good fortune of having nearly as many commentaries written on it. Manuscripts of the Haggadah of great antiquity abound, attesting to its widespread use.
Its name Haggadah, meaning "story/tale" in English, derives from the commandment that it was especially designed to carry out:
And you shall tell your son on that day, saying, "It is because of this that God acted on my behalf when I left Egypt." (Exodus 13:8)
In this verse, the Torah commands us to relate the Exodus story on the first night of Passover to our children (Talmud, Pesachim, 116b). The fulfillment of this mitzvah provides the background of the Seder and the recital of the Haggadah around which the Seder is organized.
This obligation to tell the story of the Exodus is very unique in terms of the many commandments related to the Exodus. Many of the deeds that Judaism enjoins us to perform are to commemorate the Exodus, such as placing mezuzot on our doors, or the wearing of tefilin and so on.
We also have an obligation to remember the Exodus every day of our lives by day.
We also have an obligation to remember the Exodus every day of our lives by day, and by night in our prayers, when we recite the Shema, but ordinarily we have no obligation to relate the story to anyone. Nor is the telling of the Exodus story related to the commandment to learn Torah, as the Haggadah itself points out. Even great rabbis and their students, who have no need of the information, are commanded to spend the Seder night in relating the tale.
But the Haggadah is more than an obligation to simply tell over the historic events.
A SECRET TO TELL
According to the Zohar, (Lech Lecha, 86b), the Hebrew word l'hagid, meaning "to tell," the origin of the word Haggadah, has the connotation of exposing a secret. Secret in this context means something that is not obvious on the surface. Thus, it is the secret behind the Exodus story, the revelation that lies concealed beneath the plain historical facts, that we are commanded to relate to our children. What is this secret?
The Zohar interprets the Hebrew word for Passover, Pesach, as Peh Sach, meaning "the mouth opens and says." Putting these two ideas together leads to the conclusion that the true significance of uncovering the "secret" of the Exodus story and relating it to our children, is that it was on Passover that man makes his first appearance as a being with his own message. It was the first time in human history that man had something to say that originated with him.
If we consider this thought for a minute, it should blow our minds away.
For the truth is that without this opportunity of "opening of his mouth" that relating the Passover story provides, man has nothing to say. He doesn't originate, he merely uncovers what is already there. It is the universe that speaks, not man. Man's uniqueness rests in the fact that he possesses the intelligence to listen to, interpret and communicate the message of the universe. But he is never the speaker.
If we regard the world scientifically, it is quite obvious that the laws of the universe were always in place, fully in operation, just waiting to be discovered since the beginning of time. Theoretically, even if all human knowledge was lost, and would have to be relearned from scratch, we would come up with exactly the same theories and explanations giving rise to the identical technologies. We humans as a species are powerless to initiate. We merely uncover what is already there. We have nothing to say.
In order for us to become speakers, we must have access to a world that is beyond science, to information that cannot be accessed by merely studying the universe, information that originates in human intelligence. This is the significance of the Zohar's statement. It is in relating the Passover story that we become originators, by uncovering the secret that underlies the universe.
Where is this idea expressed in the Haggadah?
Where is this idea expressed in the Haggadah?
The Gaon of Vilna points to an anomaly in the Four Questions. Everyone knows the famous words, mah nishtano halayla hazeh mikol haleylot. According to the rules of Hebrew, this sentence is not grammatically correct. The word halayla in Hebrew is feminine while the word for this, hazeh, is masculine. A masculine adjective is being paired here with a feminine noun. The text ought to read halayla hazot.
SUN AND MOON
The Gaon explains: The night is feminine because the light source of the night is the moon. The moon has no light of its own, it receives light from the sun and reflects it. In Jewish tradition, the ability to receive and reflect the light is the feminine power. It is the female who has the capacity to take the seed provided by the male and reflect its light by magnifying and translating its potential into the reality of the child.
But while the woman and the moon are both reflectors of received light there is a vast difference between the two. The woman is more than a perfect reflector of what she receives, possessing the ability to transform a microscopic input into an immense power. The moon is far less than a perfect reflector. In fact, were the moon to perfectly mirror the light of the sun that hits it, there would be no distinguishable difference between day and night. Just as the entire potential contained in the seed is expressed in the child, the moon would shine as brightly as the sun.
In Genesis 1:16, the Torah describes the creation of two great illuminators. But then in the same breath, the Torah calls one great, and the other small. Remarking on this apparent contradiction, the Talmud (Chulin 60b) makes the following comment: Originally the moon was created as a perfect reflector of sunlight, and the light it provided was indistinguishable from the light provided by the sun. (Thus the Torah speaks of two great illuminators.) But then, the moon registered a protest to God, saying, "How can two different monarchs make use of the same crown?" God's response: "You are perfectly correct, so reduce yourself in size!"
DARKNESS AS IMPERFECTION
Thus, the existence of the darkness that characterizes night is an imperfection. In the world of perfection that God originally intended, there was darkness in the world only in places where darkness can be found in the full light of day in the world of the present.
Moreover, the cause of the diminished size of the moon that is responsible for the darkness, representative of this state of imperfection, stems from the spiritual flaw of the reflector. The moon's failure to accept that as a mere reflector of the sun's light, no matter how perfect, it is unable to register a legitimate claim to the sun's crown, is symbolic of human refusal to realize that as the human soul merely reflects the Divine light of God's intelligence, human intelligence does not entitle us to assume the mantle of royalty in the universe.
This concept has no reference to the differentiation of humans into sexes. The human soul is the greatest repository of the feminine power in the universe. The soul, which is the true reflector of the Divine light, has no sex. This soul can only serve as the perfect mirror of the Divine intelligence if humanity accepts the fact that the crown of royalty belongs to God not to human beings.
The crown of royalty belongs to God not to human beings.
The Gaon explains that the grammatical anomaly in the mah nishtano question is based on this idea. The ability to glimpse the world of perfection where the light of the night is indistinguishable from the light of day is provided by the Passover holiday. The Seder night is when we relate the story of the Exodus. The miracles of the Exodus were supplied to provide objective proof that God's intelligence pervades and rules the world.
The Divine light of His presence cannot be restricted by the laws of nature as we know them. Were our world capable of serving as a perfect mirror that reflects the light of creation in full, night would turn into day. In the presence of the clarity of God's intelligence, the universe falls silent. It no longer speaks its message through the language of natural law.
TURNING LIGHT INTO DAY
When we relate the Exodus story, we turn night into day. This story testifies to the fact that the imperfections in our world do not reflect the limitations of its Creator, but are entirely due to the fact that nature is a flawed diminished reflector of the Divine light. The imperfection is in the mirror not in the light source.
Because this message is nowhere to be found in nature, its only possible origin is the human soul. Unlike the message of science, the Exodus message originates in the story itself, not in the world it describes. The human soul is the sole location of this information in the universe. The only way to communicate it is to pass it from one soul to another. It passes from father to son just as life itself. In telling over this story, man emerges as a being who has something to say. His mouth is opened and he can finally speak and originate, rather than simply interpret.
The very first declaration we make in the answer to the Four Questions is that if God had not taken us out of Egypt than we and our children would still be slaves to the Pharaoh until the end of time. This statement certainly cannot be understood according to its surface meaning. After all, as noted above, our approach to the entire Haggadah is that the story comes to uncover the secrets that lie beneath the surface of ordinary existence. By the laws of history empires rise and fall. Cultures die. Surely Egypt and its Pharaoh would have ended in the dustbin of history with or without the Exodus.
Pharaoh and Egypt are symbolic of the slavery of humanity to an imperfect nature.
The secret meaning: Pharaoh and Egypt are symbolic of the slavery of humanity to an imperfect nature. The universe as we know it is a prison that we cannot escape. All our scientific and technological progress only serves to make our prison more comfortable. No matter how much we learn about it, the surface universe we live in spins on in its predetermined purposeless course, imprisoning us within its endless repetitive cycles. Generations are born, give birth to the following generations, and then die. Just like prisoners who spend their lives behind bars, we accomplish nothing and go nowhere.
To break out of the prison we must be able to catch a glimpse of an attainable destination. We must uncover the purpose of existence. We must make contact with eternity.
THE GREAT SHABBAT
We are finally ready to return to the idea of the "Great Shabbat."
In the prayer we recite on Friday night, we say the following: "You have sanctified the seventh day to Your Name, the destination and conclusion of the creation of the heavens and the earth." Shabbat is not merely a rest day. Shabbat is reminiscent of the World to Come.
This idea is encoded in the description of the creation of man by another grammatical anomaly: God formed man...(Genesis 2:7) The Hebrew word for "formed," vayizer, is commonly written with only one yud. Here it is apparently misspelled and contains two yuds. Rashi explains: Other creatures were fashioned for only a single world, whereas Adam was created to be able to live in the world of Techiyat Hamesit, of "Resurrection" -- the resurrected world that will initiate the World to Come. Thus he was in a sense doubly fashioned; therefore two yuds are used to describe his creation.
This idea of the double creation of man is the source of holiness in the world. In fact, the standard name of God that appears in most Jewish liturgical texts is based directly on it. For example, in ordinary prayer books the name of God is written in the Hebrew text by simply placing two yuds next to one another. This name -- which appears nowhere in any of the books of the Tanach, the Hebrew Bible -- is derived from the idea explained in Rashi.
God's creation of man as this sort of bi-worldly being has a dual aspect. It is not enough for God to have inserted this potential into man to assure its actualization. In order for this potential to express itself as a part of actual reality, man's soul must be able to reflect this light fully, without imperfection.
Shabbat represents God's half of the story. The ability to fully reflect God's Shabbat is man's half.
SHABBAT AND PASSOVER
It is significant that the only one of the holy days that is referred to as a Shabbat by the Torah is the first day of Passover:
He shall wave the Omer before God to gain favor for you; on the morrow of the Shabbat the Kohen shall wave it. (Leviticus 23:11)
The Omer was brought on the second day of Passover.
No verse in the Torah has caused so much controversy as this one. The rabbis declared that this Shabbat, unlike the other times the word appears in the Torah, refers not to Shabbat the seventh day of the week, but to the first day of the Passover holiday.
The Saducees, who rejected rabbinnic interpretation of the Torah, insisted that it refers to Shabbat, the seventh day, as indeed it does everywhere else in the Torah. The Talmud in Rosh Hashana describes at great length the heroic measures resorted to by the Saducees to rearrange the Jewish calendar so that the first day of the Passover holiday would always fall on Shabbat, the seventh day of the week, so that the Omer might be brought on a mutually agreed upon day.
We recite the Haggadah twice: once on Shabbat HaGadol, and the second time on Seder night.
We can well ask our own mah nishtano question: Why did the Torah single out this first day of Passover from all other holy days by giving it the name Shabbat?
In light of this essay the answer is clear. It is on this day that the human soul acquired the ability to perfectly reflect God's Shabbat, representing His preparation of the world of the Resurrection. The Resurrection was actualized by the appearance of God's Shabbat in the human soul in a state of perfect reflection. This process was brought about by the opening of man's mouth in the recital of the Haggadah.
We recite the Haggadah twice. Once on Shabbat HaGodal, and the second time on Seder night. The bridge between these two Shabbats is the secret concealed beneath the surface layer of natural reality.
The revelation of this secret is the key to the full revelation of God's greatness, and to unlocking the potential greatness buried in the human soul. Is it any wonder that the Shabbat before Passover is known as the Great Shabbat?