In Monty Python’s Life of Brian, a confused Jew’s tumultuous journey in the underground rebellion against the ruling Romans during the early first century finds the People’s Front of Judea, the protagonist’s group, meeting the Campaign for Free Galilee, another underground faction, in its hitherto secret mission to kidnap the Roman governor’s wife. Instead of working together, the two factions start to quibble over who hatched the plan first. In the midst of all the brouhaha, the protagonist, the lone voice of reason, cries, “We mustn't fight each other! Surely we should be united against the common enemy!” The immediate response: “The Judean People's Front?!” (another underground faction). Though the Romans are the common enemy, these groups cannot get along because of their petty differences (which do not extend much past the groups’ names) and proceed to kill each other. Aside from being a humorous sketch (to some, anyhow), this scene might highlight a potential answer to an age-old question: why is Shabbat HaGadol (lit. the Great Sabbath), the Shabbat immediately preceding Pesach, so great?
The Tur, Rav Yaakov son of Rosh, explains (O.C. 430) that the name originates from the great miracle that occurred on the Shabbat preceding Bnei Yisrael’s departure from Egypt, when the Jews were told to take, on the 10th of Nissan (which, coincidentally, happened to be a Shabbat), a lamb for the Paschal offering and to tie them to their bedposts; miraculously, the outraged Egyptians, who worshipped the lamb as a god, stood by silently as the Israelites slaughtered their deity.
Although the Egyptians’ paralysis was a true miracle, what distinguishes this specific miracle as “Gadol” as opposed to this era’s garden-variety miracles, like the Esser Makkot (10 Plagues) and Keriat Yam Suf (Splitting of the Red Sea)? Weren’t the other miracles at least equally great if not greater supernatural and unprecedented manifestations of God’s dominion?
Rav Norman Lamm proposes that a miracle’s greatness is not measured by an empirical scale, like Hollywood special effects. Although the other miracles that we celebrate brought salvation to the Jews, allowing them to survive and flee Egypt, they also brought destruction and death, as the 10 Makkot ravaged the Land of Egypt and Keriat Yam Suf drowned Pharoh’s army. The miracle we celebrate on Shabbat HaGadol, however, involves no injury to the enemy, as the Jews’ stature was elevated yet nobody was hurt, as this Nes is not the bravado that is expressed in doing violence to one’s neighbor. Shabbat HaGadol celebrates Nes Gadol, the miracle that the Jewish nation achieves genuine Gadlut: greatness from within, not at someone else’s expense.
The story is told of Rav Yisrael Salanter that he once encountered two boys fighting with one another, whereupon the stronger boy threw the weaker into a ditch. When Rav Salanter inquired about the unceremonious toss, the stronger boy explained that the two lads had an altercation as to who was taller, so the stronger threw the weaker into a ditch to show that he was in fact taller. Rav Salanter criticized the boy, as he could have achieved the same purpose by standing on a chair, showing that the secret of true greatness, that Gadlut consists of achieving eminence without crushing another.
Rav Lamm notes that the State of Israel’s political consciousness is so strong that it suffers from over-politicalization, where the different factions’ partisanships exceeds all bounds and starts to resemble the comic aforementioned Jewish groups quibbling because each individual party tries to gain in prestige and power at the expense of all others (in reality, however, the situation is not uproarious). The state itself suffers from the deleterious belittling and scandalizing by super-partisan parties (not too different from the competing Hagana, Palmach, Irgun and Lechi groups during Israel’s struggle for Independence).
Perhaps Rav Lamm’s insight is the correct mindset each of us should have when beginning Pesach. To establish the right mindset for Jews everywhere, the author of the Hagaddah begins the Maggid section, which is the core of the Seder as it relates the story of the Exodus from Egypt, with the opaque paragraph of “Ha Lachma Anya,” “this is the bread of affliction.” Many questions arise, yet four are noticeably distinguished. First, why is the language is Aramaic, a tongue which hardly anyone nowadays speaks fluently? Second, why does Ha Lachma Anya begin by stating that our forefathers ate Matzah in Mitzrayim – aren’t we missing a bit of introductory material? Third, how can people be invited to partake of the Korban Pesach if they needed to register beforehand? Fourth, why do we say “HaShata Hacha LeShanah HaBaah BeAra DeYisrael. HaShata Avdei LeShanah HaBaah Bnei Chorin,” “This year we are here, next year in the land of Israel. This year [we are] slaves, next year we will be free people” – of what relevance is the Land of Israel? Why do we repeat our hope? What if we are not slaves or live in Israel?
Rav Ovadia Yosef quotes a Midrash in Eichah Rabba, which interprets the Passuk (Eichah 1:3), “Galtah Yisrael MeiOni,” to mean that Israel was exiled due to of the sin of Oni, meaning that Bnei Yisrael ate Chameitz on Pesach instead of Lechem Oni and did not give Matnot Aniyim, alms to the poor. Ha Lachma Anya, written in Aramaic, the language of Galut, asks Hashem to take note that we are rectifying out mistakes by eating Lechem Oni and inviting in poor people and should be redeemed from exile.
Rav Menachem Leibtag, however, explains that Ha Lachma Anya is the Kiyum HaMitzvah of Sippur Yeztiat Mitzrayim, or at least its introduction. The only time Matzah is recorded to have been eaten in Egypt is the Korban Pesach’s accompanying Matzah, the eating referred to by DeAchlu BeAra DeMitzrayim. Why is this Maggid’s introduction? By averring that this Matzah in front of us in the modern day is the same Matzah we ate when we had the Korban Pesach, we will now fulfill the Mitzvah to perceive oneself as if he himself left Egypt. We will be living in Mitzrayim with our families, speaking about what happened the night of Korban Pesach before Makkat Bechorot, and preparing for Yetziat Mitzrayim. Just like our forebears in Egypt, we will invite poor people to eat with us and optimistically anticipate our future, when we will settle our homeland, Eretz Yisrael, or at least be free men. Though perceiving ourselves as Jews in Egypt explains the content, the Aramaic language reminds us that even if we are in Israel, we are still in Galut, and therefore we talk in Aramaic, the language of Galut. To set the stage to perceive ourselves as if we are leaving Egypt, we have a conversation that our forebears would have had in Egypt.
Like Ha Lachma Anya, Shabbat HaGadol also commemorates preparing for the Korban Pesach and should also establish the right mindset for the Seder and Pesach in general. Even when we are in Galut, a reality highlighted by Ha Lachma Anya, we must remember the Shabbat Shel Neis Gadol, where a Jew’s greatness derives from his transcendence above the zero-sum society in which we live, where one’s winning means the other’s losing. Although we often do not realize, even friendly competition can unintentionally get out of hand. Hopefully, Shabbat HaGadol will offer all of us the opportunity to reflect upon our actions, specifically in regard to genuine greatness, and to grow and move ahead while offering a helping hand to those trying to move with us. May we all merit to truly fulfill the strictly Jewish Gadlut promised to Avraham, “VeE’esecha LeGoy Gadol,” “And I will make you a great nation” (BeReishit 12:2) and to not be disappointed this year when we hopefully request, “HaShata Hacha LeShanah HaBaah BeAra DeYisrael.”