Redemption: Israel’s Partnership with God
The first teaching attributed to Hillel in Tractate Avot is the following: “Be one of Aaron’s disciples, one who loves peace and pursues it, one who loves one’s fellow human beings and brings them near to the Torah.” It is not hard to understand what it means to love peace; how does one pursue peace? The rabbinic work known as the Fathers According to Rabbi Nathan, a sort of early commentary to Avot, gives as an example an instance where two people were not speaking to each other as the result of a dispute.
Aaron would go to one of the two and say, “Why are you angry with your friend? He just came to me with tears and regret, saying, ‘Woe to me that I quarreled with my friend who is better than I. I will go stand in the marketplace. Please go and ask him for forgiveness on my behalf.’ ” He left the first individual and went to the second, saying to him, ‘Why are you angry with your friend? He just came to me with tears and regret, saying, ‘Woe to me that I quarreled with my friend who is better than I. I will go stand in the marketplace. Please go and ask him for forgiveness on my behalf.’ ” When they met in the marketplace they would embrace and kiss each other.
Aaron understood that each of the friends wanted to make peace, but neither of them could bring himself to take the first step toward reconciliation. Each probably thought to himself, “He’s really the guilty party. Why should I apologize?” And underneath that anger lay a deep fear: “What if I offer my hand in friendship and it is rejected?” Each remained paralyzed with anger and fear.
However, Aaron loved peace, so much so that he told each a holy lie. “Your friend is waiting for you in the marketplace,” he told each one. “He has taken a step toward you. All you need to do is to take a step toward him in return.” Each thought that the other had taken the first step, but in reality it was Aaron who had done so.
As beautiful as this story is, I do not view it as having an entirely happy ending. The two friends made peace, but they did not learn how to make peace. Each came to the market place in the belief that he was only responding to his friend’s overture. What would they have done the next time they fought if Aaron was not available to mediate? Would one of them have had the wisdom, courage, and humility to take the first step?
I mention this teaching and my reflections upon it because this coming Shabbat is Shabbat Ha–Gadol, “the Great Shabbat.” The first commandment given to the Israelites concerning Passover was to choose and set aside a kid for the sacrifice on the tenth of Nisan (Exodus 12:2), which according to tradition fell that year on Shabbat. Therefore the Shabbat before Pesah has become known as Shabbat Ha–Gadol in commemoration of this event.
Why is this Shabbat designated as “great”? Although there is considerable discussion among medieval and modern commentaries concerning the meaning of this phrase, its origins remain shrouded in mystery. While our knowledge is limited by this uncertainty, our imaginations are not. I therefore beg your indulgence as I imagine the possible significance of this Shabbat.
Picture yourself as an Israelite in Egypt on the morning of the tenth of Nisan. Previously you have learned of God’s command to set aside a kid on the tenth of Nisan. Until this point you have been a passive spectator in the drama that is unfolding around you. Now, for the first time, action is demanded of you. According to the rabbinic explanation of the biblical narrative you are being told to take an animal that the Egyptians regard as a deity and designate it publicly as a sacrifice. As you awaken Shabbat morning you ask yourself, “Am I ready to take this step?” And the question behind this question, the fear that lurks beneath, is: “If I do as God has commanded, will God actually redeem us, or am I about to be cruelly disappointed?”
You cannot know the answer to this second question at the moment that you are called upon to act. And so you must decide: either you cast your lot with God and Israel and select a kid as an act of faith in eventual redemption, or you remain passive and fearful. For the first time in the process of redemption no one, not even God, can or will take the step for you; you must take it yourself.
Shabbat Ha–Gadol celebrates the greatness, the courage, of those who moved forward. They understood that no redemption could take place without expressing faith through action. They needed to show God and themselves that they were partners in the process of becoming free.
This was so for two reasons. To be freed without participating in the process of emancipation is an oxymoron. Freedom is the ability to make choices and to exercise that ability. No one can free a slave who is not ready to free himself.
Secondly, in leaving Egypt the Israelites were exchanging slavery for covenant. The slave master does not seek the consent of those he enslaves; Pharaoh did not feel the need to ask Jacob’s descendants if they wished to live lives of servitude. God, however, sought a covenant with Israel. Covenant is partnership; it requires action and consent from both parties. In telling the Israelites to choose a kid for sacrifice, God was saying to Israel, “Show me that you seek a covenant with me just as I seek one with you.”
This Shabbat is an opportunity to reflect on the choices that stood before our ancestors and the decisions that they made. We, too, are constantly challenged to take first steps — to reconcile with a friend or relative, to begin a project with uncertain prospects, to identify with and work for the Jewish community and its institutions in the face of doubt and discouragement, to live a life of faith even as doubts assail us. Will we take those steps? Let us follow the path of those who chose courage, action, and faith on Shabbat Ha–Gadol.
Rabbi Eliezer Diamond
The publication and distribution of the JTS Commentary are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.