The Great Shabbat

Rabbi Reuven Mann

This Shabbat is known as Shabbat HaGadol (the Great Shabbat) and recalls a generally unheralded miracle which took place in Egypt. When the time of liberation drew near, Moshe conveyed Hashem’s command to set aside a sheep–on the tenth of Nissan–in order for it to be offered as the Passover Sacrifice, on the Fourteenth.

The blood of the Korban (Sacrifice) was to be sprinkled on the doorposts, to declare that the residents of that abode were involved in the performance of Mitzvot. Thereby, the destructive force that was assaulting the Egyptian firstborn, would “pass over” that domicile.

The Jews accepted the Mitzvah of Hashem and set aside the sheep on the tenth of the month. The miracle consisted in the manner in which the Egyptians reacted to this “provocation”. They did nothing. It should be remembered that people generally do not take kindly to what they regard as desecration of their cherished religious beliefs.

In this context it must be mentioned that the Egyptians of that time regarded the sheep as a deity which they worshipped. As a result, they maintained a strong antipathy to anyone who was a shepherd of that animal.

This can be seen when the brothers of Yosef came down to Mitzrayim for the second time, and Yosef had them brought to his home. When the time came for the meal the Torah tells us, that the Egyptians did not eat at the same table with the brothers, “…for the Egyptians could not bear to eat food with the Hebrews it being loathsome to the Egyptians” (Genesis 43:32).

When Pharaoh was reeling under the plague of the Arov (Wild Beasts), he relented and granted Moshe permission for the Jews to offer sacrifices to Hashem, “in the land.” Moshe responded, “It is not proper to do so, for we will offer the deity of Egypt to Hashem, our G-d–behold if we were to slaughter the deity of Egypt in their sight will they not stone us?” (Exodus 8:22)

Moshe thus conveyed to Pharaoh a basic principle of Judaism, that the preservation of life trumps the performance of Mitzvot. Except in the rarest of cases, if performance of a religious obligation entails a risk of one’s life, he must abstain. Yet here it was, only a few months later, when the command was issued to seize a sheep and secure it for four days; and subsequently slaughter it to Hashem. Wasn’t there a clear and present danger that the enraged Egyptians would burst forth and kill them?

But no such thing occurred. There is no evidence that a single Jew was harmed because of the disrespectful treatment of the sheep. How are we to explain this? In my opinion, this provides testimony to the success of Moshe’s mission to Pharaoh. In the course of his negotiations with the Egyptian ruler, he had been treated with deference and respect, despite the great pain he was bringing to the people.

But suddenly, in the midst of his last meeting with Pharaoh, the King’s mood dramatically shifted, and he warned Moshe, “Go from me!; Beware–do not see my face anymore–for on the day you see my face you shall die!” (Exodus 10:28)

What was it that Moshe said, which triggered the wrath of Pharoh? Prior to this outburst, Moshe was informing Pharoh that the Jews were required to bring all their animals with them, to offer to Hashem; for they had no way of knowing what Hashem would require of them, when they worshipped Him in the Wilderness. But suddenly, Moshe inexplicably said, “Even you will place in our hands feast-offerings and elevation-offerings, and we shall offer them to Hashem, our G-d.” (Exodus 10:25)

That statement is indeed puzzling; for the Torah contains no information that Pharaoh did any such thing, when he sent the Jews out of Egypt. What, then, was the meaning of Moshe’s strange statement? The Ibn Ezra, explains, that Moshe meant, that Pharaoh also was obligated to offer sacrifices to Hashem, on behalf of himself and his people.

In my opinion, this is what kindled Pharaoh’s anger. Up to this point, Moshe had urged Pharaoh to respect the religious rights of the Jews, and allow them to worship their G-d. Now he was telling him, that Hashem is not just our G-d, but the Ruler of the Universe, that all must acknowledge and serve. In effect, he was telling Pharaoh, that Egypt must abandon idolatry and recognize Hashem.

By doing this, Moshe was fulfilling the Mitzvah of Ahavat Hashem (Love of G-d); which includes, in the words of the Rambam, “to call upon all people to worship Him and believe in Him, for when you love someone, you praise and extol Him and call upon people to love Him…” (Sefer HaMitzvot Positive 3)

This is what motivated Moshe to urge Pharaoh to offer sacrifices to Hashem. This notion disturbed the ruler greatly, as he felt that Moshe was challenging the entire religious system of Egypt. Furthermore, on the very basis of this pagan system he himself was deified, and through it, he retained control over all the people and the country.

But apparently, the teachings of Moshe had greatly impacted the land of Egypt. So much so, that the people bestowed lavish gifts of clothing and jewelry upon the departing slaves. This was because, “Hashem placed the favor of the nation in the eyes of Egypt; also the man Moshe was very great in the land of Egypt in the eyes of the servants of Pharoh and in the eyes of the nation” (Exodus 11:3).

This esteem, produced great respect for the religious beliefs of the Jews; and prevented the Egyptians from lashing out, when sheep were tied up and designated for slaughter. This event, was the great miracle of Shabbat Hagadol, when the Jews openly fulfilled their mission of negating idolatry and affirming Hashem’s Kingship, to the entire world.

This, is in accordance with the words of Hashem as revealed by Isaiah (43:21), “This Nation I have fashioned for Myself that it might declare my praise.” May Hashem grant us the wisdom and courage to participate in this great Mitzvah.

Shabbat Shalom

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—Rabbi Reuven Mann