By Rabbi Naftali Schiff
The Shabbat before Pesach is known as Shabbat Hagadol, ‘the great Shabbat’ – not because of the great pre- Pesach panic but rather because of a miracle that occurred during the process of the going from Egypt. The Jewish people had been cruelly enslaved in a hostile and brutal environment for more than 200 years and had, by and large, assimilated into the dominant culture.
We were downtrodden and despondent and had all but given up hope of ever being able to emerge from the quagmire. The Talmud, in a different context, teaches us an important idea. Even if a sharp sword is placed upon one’s neck, even if the worst case scenario seems inevitable, never give up.
Because the Creator and Sustainer of the universe has the ability to turn things around in the blink of an eye. On the Shabbat preceding the Exodus, our ancestors were told to take a lamb, revered by the Egyptians as a god, and to tie it up for four days in preparation for it to be offered up as a sacrifice. This provocative act of rebellion was a crucial step in their march to freedom from the Israelis’ physical and psychological imprisonment. The miracle of Shabbat Hagadol is that the Egyptians did not interfere in the slightest. The ability to swim against the tide is a very Jewish trait, one that we have inherited from our forefather, Abraham. Known as Avraham Ha’Ivri, he was literally Abraham ‘from the other side’, someone who was willing to dedicate his life to a cause he believed to be true in the face of universal adversity and derision.
Our nation is no stranger to the need for self-sacrifice. There are times in our history when we have been called up to pay the ultimate price for being Jewish. What is unique and particularly relevant in the current geopolitical climate is that we are a nation that glorifies life over death. The message of the Pesach sacrifice is a call to us to decide for what we would be willing to sacrifice our lives and then make a conscious decision to live for those things.
The greatest example of sacrifice in Jewish literature is that of Isaac. We are not lacking true martyrs, however, and it seems the message here is to live for that which you would be willing to die for.
The events of the Exodus took place 3,327 years ago and we have commemorated them consistently since then. Its lessons are engraved on our collective and national consciousness and are as relevant now as they have been at any time in our history. Let us teach them to our children so that they, too, will have the courage to maintain and stand up for all that is precious and valuable about our heritage.