PROPHETS OF HOPE AND WISDOM – Tzav/Shabat hagadol – by Rabbi Baruch Cohon
This week’s Torah portion, like most of the readings in Leviticus, details ancient ceremonial sacrifices. Every congregation will be able to review the sacrificial process at the initiation of Aaron and his sons into the priesthood in the Tabernacle. When that reading concludes, and the Haftorah follows it, however, not all synagogue attendees will hear the same message.
Chabad, and other Hassidic communities, will read Jeremiah’s stern pronouncement against leaders who violate G-d’s commandments, and he predicts dire results for them and those who follow them.
Many, if not most, congregations – the non-Hassidic ones — will read a special pre-Passover message from Malachi, declaring that the people have a chance for their hopes to be fulfilled – including the arrival of Eliyohu haNovi – Elijah the prophet, whose wine cup graces our Seder table. All this in observance of the “great Sabbath” (Shabat hagadol) that anticipates our festival of freedom.
Why the difference? Very simple, really. Hassidic tradition is far from being negative. It simply limits Shabat hagadol to those years when this Sabbath coincides with Erev Pesach. Predict Elijah’s arrival in the morning, and expect him that night. Other sacred traditions seem to acknowledge that we anticipate Passover for many days, not just one.
What distinguishes both of these Haftorah choices is the literary structure the prophets used in communicating their messages.
Jeremiah starts by denouncing the leaders for stressing the offering of sacrifices while they commit heinous sins in the name of the Almighty – even to the extreme of sacrificing their own children. He predicts Divine punishment for them, and destruction for those who follow them, even indicating special guilt of the evil royal family – “hamishpakhah hara-ah hazot!” And he leads into one of the prime sermons of all time:
Thus says the L-rd: Let not the wise man glory in his brain; let not the strong man glory in his brawn;
Let not the rich man glory in his gain;
Let anyone who glories, glory in the good sense to know Me, who makes kindness, justice and righteousness on earth, for those are what I desire, says G-d.
Certainly a powerful message for any Sabbath. Weekdays too. Jeremiah could stir his people, and his words still ring.
Now what about Malachi and the Shabat hagadol sermon? Malachi in fact stresses Divine patience. We do wrong, yet we get another chance, and another and another. He urges us to distinguish between tzadik and rasha – between those who do right and those who do evil. After predicting that a great fire will destroy the criminals, he recalls Moses and the Torah and the laws and judgments commanded to all Israel. Although Malachi does not mention the Exodus itself, the rabbis who scheduled this reading clearly connected that event with the trip to Sinai – here called Mr. Horeb – and our historical acceptance of those laws and judgments. And he climaxes his message with the famous promise:
Here I send you Elijah the Prophet, before the great and wonderful Day of G-d arrives. And he will return the hearts of parents to their children and the hearts of children to their parents. Lest I come and strike chaos on all the Earth.
After which we symbolically repeat: Here I send you Elijah the Prophet…
So on this Shabat Tzav, whichever Haftorah you listen to, you have great words to hear. Words of hope and words of wisdom. And a beautiful cup – Elijah’s cup — to sanctify your Seder table.