Chancellor's Parashah Commentary
Parashat Aharei Mot
Leviticus 16:1 – 18:30
April 23, 2005 14 Nisan 5765
Ismar Schorsch is the chancellor of The Jewish Theological Seminary.
The Shabbat just prior to Passover is known as the Great Sabbath, Shabbat ha–Gadol. It is not one of the four special Sabbaths that span the month of Adar to herald the coming of Passover (Shekalim, Zakhor, Parah and ha–Hodesh). The latter merit not only an appropriate prophetic reading of their own, but also an extra Torah portion, hence the use of two Torah scrolls. In the case of Shabbat ha–Gadol, we have no extra Torah portion, just a special haftarah. The evidence at our disposal suggests that the four special Sabbaths are indeed ancient, going back to the very beginning of the practice of reading the Torah in the synagogue, while the designation of Shabbat ha–Gadol appears only in the Middle Ages. What dictated its appearance was probably the two–week gap between Shabbat ha–Hodesh and Passover. The imminent onset of Passover begged for a more immediate herald.
And, indeed, the haftarah chosen for the day resonates with meaning. Most likely, the name of the Sabbath itself derives from it. Malachi, who lived in Judea some time after the return from the Babylonian exile, was the last of the prophets to make it into the Hebrew canon. We have but a few specimens of his message. His final words, which constitute our haftarah, relate to the end of days, a devastation that will spare only those who have remained faithful to God. The return of Elijah, the prophet who never died, will both foretell the impending doom as well as provide salvation from it. In speaking of that day, Malachi uses the Hebrew word gadol (great): "So, I will send the prophet Elijah to you before the coming of the awesome (gadol), fearful day of the Lord" (Malachi 3:23).
Although it is usually the first important word of a haftarah that names a special Shabbat (like Shabbat Shuvah before Yom Kippur or Shabbat Hazon before Tish'ah Be'av), Shabbat ha–Gadol deviates from that formula. The reason for the exception is the reason for this particular haftarah in the first place. The connection between Passover and the end of days makes sense only if we recall the belief of R. Yehoshua ben Hananyah, but one generation after the destruction of the Second Temple, that the final redemption of the people of Israel will occur in the very same month of Nisan in which the Exodus took place (BT Rosh Hashanah 11a). History had destined the month for national salvation. The deeper the order of events, the greater their meaning. The choice of the haftarah for Shabbat ha–Gadol added a messianic undertone to the celebration of Passover, with the name ha–Gadol deriving from it. Memory entailed comfort; to recall was also to anticipate.
The prominence of Elijah in the Seder ritual also derives from the influence of our haftarah. While Moses goes entirely unmentioned in the Haggadah, Elijah is honored with a cup of wine on the Seder plate. After the recitation of the grace after meals, we send a child to open the front door, hoping against hope that this year Elijah will finally come. With the door ajar, we intone four verses that call upon God to visit those who have afflicted Jews with retribution. In the contemporary Seder, the moment lends itself to remembering the obscenity of the Holocaust. The convergence of Elijah with the imprecation is surely medieval, a messianic overlay to the older strata of the Haggadah that expresses escalating religious tensions.
Of similar messianic provenance and equally late is the song Adir Hu ("Mighty is He") at the end of the Haggadah. Like the others in this final section, it was added to keep the young engaged. The melodies are all quite spirited. But in content, Adir Hu is a fervent plea to God to end the exile by restoring the Temple in Jerusalem, and in many an illustrated Haggadah, the song was adorned with an artist's image of the Temple. My point is to indicate that the impact of historical events on the mood of the Haggadah merely rendered what was implicit explicit. The original matrix had been set long before by the haftarah: a second redemption would right the wrongs of history.
According to Malachi, when Elijah appears, "He shall reconcile parents with children and children with their parents, so that when I (the Lord of Hosts) come, I do not strike the whole land with utter destruction" (3:24). In short, the onset of the messianic era begins at home with familial reconciliation. Out of the mundane will spring the sacred. Passover is such a moment of reconciliation. We need not wait for Elijah. Each year, the family is drawn together by the pageantry of the Seder. Ritual reunites us in an ancient odyssey far greater than our own. We blend our individual and ephemeral narratives with the unbroken national narrative of the Jewish people.
The medium is dialogue. Everything is designed to arouse the curiosity of the young. If they don't ask, the telling becomes hollow. To recline at the Seder does not mean to be passive. Parents must pitch their tale to the level of their children. The Seder is a cantata – musical, participatory, and experiential. The Shema' (Deut. 6:4–9) asks of parents to be their children's first and primary teachers, to utilize texts and ideas, art and song, ritual and prayer, work and play to fill the house with the sights, sounds, and smells of Judaism. Transmission does not occur in a vacuum.
Yet before we adults can teach, we must love: "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might" (Deut. 6:5). It is hard to teach what does not grab us. A flame that is flickering will fail to light another. But the Rabbis saw in this injunction of the heart more than a mere emotional predisposition. Beneath the surface they detected an injunction to act. By reading the verb ve–ahavta (and you shall love) reflexively as mitahev (to be loved), they came to the daunting conclusion that we are called upon to live in such a way that others will be drawn closer to God. To love God is not a disembodied profession of faith but a lofty and sustained way of life. To love God is to teach by example (BT Yoma 86a).
At Passover, the Seder is our classroom. Surrounded by family and friends, we have a setting of high drama and great beauty in which to express our love of God and bring others to share it with us. This year may Elijah find us worthy of his coming.
Shabbat Shalom ve–Hag kasher ve–sameah,