Parshat Tzav: The Greatness of the Grand Sabbath

This week’s Torah reading is parashat Tzav, lots of details on sacrifices.  It is also Shabbat Hagadol, The Grand Sabbath, the Shabbat before Pesach that gains elevation in holiness as it leads us into Pesach and our Seders.

…and all I can think about is Covid 19 and how life has changed.

But I draw my thoughts deliberately to the traditions of Shabbat Hagadol and I find them relevant and helpful.  It’s the Shabbat before Pesach and we first celebrated it in Egypt. Things were very different then but maybe relevantly different.  It was Egypt, the plagues were abounding and Israel was told to stay in their region and ultimately, to stay in their homes. Danger was everywhere outside the front door.  God commands everyone to paint blood on their doorposts as a sign for death to ‘Passover’ that house and yet the image of blood on the door makes it clear that to cross the threshold is to endanger one’s life – to enter the blood zone.

It hits a little too close to home right now.

And then Shabbat Hagadol steps in.  The Hebrew calendar in Egypt happens to be the same as the Hebrew calendar this year.  Shabbat falls on the 10th of Nisan this year and it was the 10th of Nisan in Egypt as well.  It’s starting to get a little too close for comfort, the last thing I need is to layer what’s going on now with the realities of ancient Egypt.

It reminds me of the old Jewish man who is lying in bed fearing the worst.  He calls to his wife, Goldie, and he says: ‘Goldeh, things are looking tough right now but I’m remembering our years together.  I remember when we first were married and suddenly our lives became hard finding a place to live’. Goldie nods her head. ‘And Goldeh, I remember when we opened our first grocery store together and we were robbed within a month.’  Goldie nods her head. ‘And Goldeh, don’t think I’ve forgotten that when we opened our second store together it burned to the ground right after the insurance expired.’ Goldie nods her head. ‘And through it all, Goldeh, you were there, every step, every moment.’  Goldie’s eyes fill and she nods. ‘And so, my Goldeh, in this moment of dire reflection I have come to an important conclusion…’ Goldie leans closer, ‘My Goldeh…I now understand…you’re bad luck.’

I’m not sure I need to be thinking about how much worse Israel enslaved in Egypt with blood on our doorposts makes me feel right now.  We rely on our Judaism and Torah to strengthen us in these moments and not deepen our sense of gloom.

There have been a lot of conversations about Pesach this year and Zoom Seders and the upside to a simpler, scaled down, more doable Pesach.  Jewish families who have never met each other are joining together to create Zoom seders and build strong lines of connection. We are the ones who did that but we did it because the Torah always teaches us to reach outward and not hibernate internally.  We stayed in our homes in Egypt in preparation for leaving and growing strong. We weren’t hibernating, we were incubating.

And now Shabbat Hagadol starts to speak to us with relevance.  It was on that Shabbat that Israel was told to make preparations for leaving.  The time spent not allowed to venture out is time spent envisioning the next step.  Ever since that first Pesach in Egypt, Shabbat Hagadol has built some of its own traditions.  There are special Psalms recited but, interesting, there is also an ancient tradition for making ‘synagogue challah’.  People would take some of the chametz ingredients they didn’t want in their homes (and in later years, was extra and therefore they didn’t need to sell it) and they would bake challah to give to the synagogue so every Jew could have a home baked, fresh challah for the Shabbat before we all have to stop enjoying challah.  Everyone baked what they could, so some challot were large and braided and some were little buns. It was all anonymous, no one judged and no one knew who was going into the synagogue to drop a challah off or who was going to pick up a challah. I can’t imagine anything that would make a Shabbat more grand.

But, we also learn that the 10th of Nisan is the day Miriam, Moses’ sister, dies in the desert.  With her death, Israel loses her ‘well’, their source of water in the wilderness, as well as her unique leadership and her guardianship.  

And so the 10th of Nisan is a day where we choose our perspective.

I will think of Miriam and everything she brought to Judaism on this Shabbat, I choose not to dwell on the loss of her.  Perhaps this Shabbat, the Grand Shabbat, is a time to think of taking something from our pantry and setting it for donation in whatever amount and way we feel is secure.

I believe our nation is full of Goldies who stand with us every step of every challenge.  Goldie is the hero of that family – of all our families – may we never be the one who doesn’t see it.

Wishing everyone a meaningful, connected and beautiful Pesach.

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