The Shabbat before Pesach is called “שבת הגדול “ The Great Shabbat. What happened on the Shabbat before Pesach that caused it to go down in history forever as The Great Shabbat?
The Jewish people left Egypt on Thursday the 15th of Nissan. On the 14th of Nissan, Wednesday afternoon, they slaughtered the Pesach lamb for the first time, eating its meat, with matzah and bitter herbs, at the Seder that night. Four days earlier, on the 10th of Nissan, Shabbat, they had been instructed to choose the lamb that they would use for Pesach and to monitor it over the next four days to be sure that it incurred no blemishes that would render it unfit for a sacrifice
The Midrash informs us that the Jewish people protested when Hashem told them to take a lamb for a sacrifice: “How can we kill the god of Egypt and expect them not to kill us?” Hashem responded, “Just wait and see what I will do for you!” Because the Jewish people did not usually work on Shabbat, the Egyptians, who were a little surprised to see the Jewish people out and about looking at lambs, asked them, “What’s going on?” to which the Jews responded, “We are choosing a lamb to sacrifice in four days.” The Egyptians were, of course, less than happy with this announcement and took out their swords and daggers to kill the Jews. Hashem intervened and sickened the Egyptians with pain and suffering so that they were unable to do a thing. In commemoration of this miracle, this Shabbat received the name,שבת הגדול the Great Shabbat.
Implicit in this story is a subtle but more important reason to celebrate the taking of the lamb on the 10th of Nissan.
In instructing the Jewish people, Moshe says: (Exodus 12:21)
ספר שמות פרק יב
(כא) וַיִּקְרָא משֶׁה לְכָל זִקְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וַיֹּאמֶר אֲלֵהֶם מִשְׁכוּ וּקְחוּ לָכֶם צֹאן לְמִשְׁפְּחֹתֵיכֶם וְשַׁחֲטוּ הַפָּסַח
Moshe called to all the elders of Israel and said to them: “Draw forth or buy for yourselves of the flock for your families, and slaughter the Pesach offering.”
The Mechilta focuses on the word משכו – draw forth, which seems to be extra, and explains its importance.
“משכו ידיכם מעבודה זרה והדבקו במצות”,
Draw yourselves away from idol worship and cling to the mitzvot.
During the Jewish people’s 210 year Egyptian sojourn, they learned to worship idols from their Egyptian environment. This way of life became very ingrained in the Jews in Egypt. Indeed, when Moshe introduced himself to them as Hashem’s messenger to take them out of Egypt, they believed and followed him, but the seeds of idol worship were still deeply implanted in them. The act of taking the lamb, one of the Egyptian gods, for sacrifice, represented a great breakthrough in the development of the Jewish people as the nation of Hashem. Through the nine months of the plagues they had progressed so far away from idol worship that they were even prepared to kill a lamb. This milestone represents another momentous event to celebrate on Shabbat Hagadol.
Today, in 21st century America, we have trouble understanding the concept and the draw of idol worship. When we see an inanimate statue or figure of a person or object, do we have the slightest inclination to bow down to it? Does it even cross our minds that it can do anything other than collect dust? We know full well that this object is man-made, the brainchild of some artisan. So what were those people thinking when they thought that idols could be gods worthy of their worship?
To answer these questions, we need to understand how idol worship started.
רמב”ם יד החזקה הלכות עבודת כוכבים פרק א
(א) בימי אנוש טעו בני האדם טעות גדול ונבערה עצת חכמי אותו הדור ואנוש עצמו מן הטועים היה וזו היתה טעותם אמרו הואיל והאלהים ברא כוכבים אלו וגלגלים להנהיג את העולם ונתנם במרום וחלק להם כבוד והם שמשים המשמשים לפניו ראויין הם לשבחם ולפארם ולחלוק להם כבוד וזהו רצון האל ברוך הוא לגדל ולכבד מי שגדלו וכבדו כמו שהמלך רוצה לכבד העומדים לפניו וזהו כבודו של מלך כיון שעלה דבר זה על לבם התחילו לבנות לכוכבים היכלות ולהקריב להן קרבנות ולשבחם ולפארם בדברים ולהשתחוות למולם כדי להשיג רצון הבורא בדעתם הרעה וזה היה עיקר עבודת כוכבים וכך היו אומרים עובדיה היודעים עיקרה לא שהן
In the days of Enosh (the grandson of Adam) people made a grave mistake: They thought that since Hashem had created all the stars and celestial beings to control the world (more about this later) and honored them by placing them in the highest places, since they are Hashem’s officials, it is appropriate to praise and exalt them and give them honor. Hashem would want us to honor those whom He chose to honor, just as every king wants his ambassador to be respected, and with this, we honor Hashem also. Once they thought of this, they started building temples to those stars to bring them sacrifices and to bow down and praise them.
As time went on, charlatans arose and said, “Hashem told me that we have to worship a certain star, and that star appeared to me and revealed the proper way to worship him.” They would invent an image and say this is an image of what it looked like. So people started worshipping those images of the stars. After a while, they forgot about Hashem and it was only the image that they worshipped.
What was their mistake? Where is the flaw in their logic? When the emissary of a king or president travels to a foreign nation, he does want his representative to be respected. So why does Maimonides say that they made a grave mistake?
The answer is, that when the emissary travels, the king wants him to have respect, but not when the king himself is present! Giving honor to a secondary official in the king’s presence constitutes treason! In the king’s presence no one gets respect except the king. Therefore, since Hashem is ever-present, it is inappropriate to give honor to anyone but Him.
This is what it says in the Ten Commandments.
ספר שמות פרק כ
(ג) לֹא יִהְיֶה לְךָ אֱלֹהִים אֲחֵרִים עַל פָּנָי:
You shall not recognize the gods of others in my presence.
Since Hashem is ever present, it is never acceptable to have other gods.
This still sounds weird. Why would they worship a star, the sun, or the moon? What can these objects possibly do?
Our Sages teach us that Hashem runs the world through the stars. They are Hashem’s messengers, the sources that provide the sustenance for the myriad of this world’s needs. Although they necessarily receive everything that they bestow from Hashem, they are still the dispensers. This concept is stated clearly in the writings of Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzato.
ספר דעת תבונות – צו – קכה
והנה דוגמא לזה הוא השפעת הכוכבים, שידענו שהולידה כל עניני העולם התחתון הזה, וכמאמרם ז”ל (בראשית רבה י, ו), “אין לך כל עשב ועשב מלמטה שאין לו מזל ברקיע שמכה בו ואומר לו גדל. ואמנם, אלה משפיעים לפי החוק שהטביע בם האל ית’, ומשפיעים רק מה שמקבלים ממנו ית’; אך האל ית’ הוא מקור כל השפע הנשפע.
The missing piece is that in those days, their souls were able to peer into the heavens to perceive how the stars were the sources of the bounty. They could even identify which star gave out which blessing. When a person would pray to, or worship the star through the material image of it, the star would dispense the blessing that it was created to give to the world, to that person. Because this would work consistently, they treated the stars as gods since they got what they wanted from them. We now understand why this is unacceptable. The star is only the dispenser for the blessing that comes from Hashem. Treating the star as the source of the bounty perforce denies that Hashem is the true source of blessing, giving the credit to the middleman.
But, what is the allure to using the stars directly instead of going to Hashem, the real source? Why was idol worship so prevalent, so attractive? For one, there was the “cause and effect” factor. Because it worked every time, it seemed like this was the real deal. When we pray to Hashem, there isn’t always an immediate response, and, sometimes, there seems to be no response at all. The reason for this is that Hashem has only our best interest in mind; if it is not the best thing for us, He won’t give it to us. Also, perhaps we need to come a little closer to Hashem before we are worthy of His blessing. Hashem wants a relationship with us, and going to the middleman creates a disconnect between mankind and Hashem. It’s like a child who, instead of asking his father for something, steals his credit card and just goes out and buys everything he wants.
This very same spiritual power, the ability to peer into the heavens and see how everything emanates from Hashem, is what enabled a holy person to achieve prophesy. The idolater would stop halfway up, and dwell on the star that he chose, whereas a prophet would follow a straight path directly to Hashem and create a connection with Him that would be manifest in Hashem communicating with him through prophesy. This was the goal that every holy person aspired to achieve; as this was the closest that one could get to Hashem. Although our Tanakh has only 24 books written with prophesy, our Sages tell us that in the 1000 years that prophesy existed in the Jewish nation, we had over 1.2 million (!) prophets. A quick calculation yields that 1200 new prophets came “on line” per year. With overlap, as a prophet could live for 70 or 80 years, there could be as many as 100,000 prophets walking around at the same time. If you had lived in those times, you would likely have known a prophet. The reason that we have only 24 books of prophecy is because only the prophesies that were deemed relevant to the future of the Jewish people were included in the Canon.
רמב”ם יד החזקה הלכות יסודי התורה פרק ג
(ט) כל הכוכבים והגלגלים כולן בעלי נפש ודעה והשכל הם והם חיים ועומדים ומכירין את מי שאמר והיה העולם כל אחד ואחד לפי גדלו ולפי מעלתו משבחים ומפארים ליוצרם כמו המלאכים וכשם שמכירין הקב”ה כך מכירין את עצמן ומכירין את המלאכים שלמעלה מהן ודעת הכוכבים והגלגלים מעוטה מדעת המלאכים וגדולה מדעת בני אדם:
All the stars and planets have a soul, a mind, and wisdom. They are alive and recognize Hashem Who created the world. Each according to its greatness and unique attributes, praises and glorifies Hashem just like the angels. They also are conscious of themselves, and recognize the angels that are above them. The mind of a star or planet is less than an angel’s, but greater than a person’s.
When we read this in Maimonides, we think it is off because we see no evidence that the sun, the moon, and stars are living, thinking creatures. But, back in the day, people were able to perceive spiritual matters such as these, and therefore they made gods out of them.
So what happened? What did they have that we don’t?
The Talmud in Tractate Sanhedrin 64a tells the story of how אנשי כנסת הגדולה , , the Men of the Great Assembly, a body of 120 Sages, many of whom were prophets, captured and neutralized the force of idol worship in the world. What this means in practical terms is, that they abolished a person’s ability to peer into the heavens and perceive the powers of the stars and planets. This is why there is no prophesy today. When they abolished this power, they also, de facto, placed an end to prophesy, since even the holy people had no access to the hidden spiritual realms that were previously the domain of all.
It is interesting to note that until the termination of idol worship and prophesy there is no talk of atheism, only idol worship. That spiritual realms existed was not something that anyone could deny since everyone knew someone who had access to it. It was only a question of whether you were on the right track. But once these realms became closed off, it became possible to deny their existence altogether.
This is why we have no clue what it was like to live in the times when idol worship was rampant, and why it seems so impossible to us to worship an idol. Had we lived then, things would be different.
The Talmud in Tractate Sanhedrin 102b illustrates this point. Rav Ashi, a Sage of the Talmud, told his class, “Tomorrow we discuss our friend Menashe the king of Israel who was an idol worshipper.” That night, Menashe the king came to him in his dream and said to him, “You call me your friend and the friend of your father? What’s the proper place to cut the bread when you make the blessing on it?” Rav Ashi said, “I don’t know.” Menashe then told him, “You don’t even know the proper place to cut the bread, and you call me your friend?” To this Rav Ashi said, “Please tell me, and tomorrow I will teach it to my class in your name.” Menashe told him, “In the crispiest spot!” Rav Ashi then asked him the million dollar question: “If you are so knowledgeable in Jewish law, how could you possibly have worshipped idols?” To this Menashe answered, “If you were there, you would have picked up your coat tails to allow you to run faster, and you would have chased it! At least we walked with dignity!”
Belief in Hashem requires that we realize that Hashem is the exclusive source for everything in this world. To attribute blessing to any other source constitutes idol worship. This was especially difficult in Egypt where the Egyptians were masters of magic and with it could imitate some of the ten plagues. The ability to perform magic is also tied to this power to connect to the dark side of the spiritual realms in the heavens. When the Jewish people chose the lamb for a sacrifice on the Shabbat before they left Egypt, they were placing their entire trust in Hashem and totally separating themselves from idol worship. Maybe now we can appreciate a little more the difficulty involved in totally withdrawing themselves from idol worship, and what is so great about Shabbat Hagadol.
We tend to think that idol worship is a thing of the past. Upon deeper thought, however, we realize that although we do not bow down to statues and the like, we still suffer from the same problem that idol worship presented. We fail to realize that all is from Hashem, and we attribute our blessings to everything but Hashem Who has bestowed them on us. Thus, we fail to thank Hashem properly for all the blessing in our lives.
There is another way that we may be worshipping idols even today.
The Midrash relates that Avraham our forefather’s father Terach was an idol salesman. One day Terach had to go out of town and left his son Avraham in charge of the store. Upon his return, he saw that all the idols were smashed to pieces, except for the biggest one who had a fancy bowl of fruit in his lap and a sledge hammer in his hand. “What happened!?” he asked his son. Avraham replied, “A woman brought this beautiful bowl of fruit for the idols, and they started quarreling about who should get it. The biggest one smashed the others to pieces and took the bowl of fruit for himself, as you can clearly see!” replied Avraham. “You know these idols can’t move!” accused Terach. “So why do you worship them?” replied Avraham.
Here’s the question. When a person goes to a haberdashery to buy a tie, he has certain criteria that help him choose the right tie. He has a blue suit, a certain amount of money to spend, etc. When shopping for an idol, what are the criteria that a person uses to choose the right idol? Idols come with rules, such as how to serve them. So how does one decide which idol to choose? The answer is that he chooses the idol that has the rules that he likes. For example, if he smokes but doesn’t drink, he chooses the god that says, “It’s okay to smoke, but don’t you dare drink!” If he drinks, and doesn’t smoke, he chooses the god that says, “It’s okay to drink, but don’t you dare smoke!” Each person chooses the god that suites his way of life and his preferences. He uses his god to condone his lifestyle. Avraham Avinu was the first person to call Hashem by the name א-ד-נ-י “My Master,” which constituted a revolution in thinking at that time. It means that we do what You want, Hashem, not what we want. You are our master, and we follow Your instructions.
Our Sages in the Midrash derived this concept in an interesting way.
The verse says:
ספר בראשית פרק מא
וּפַרְעֹה חֹלֵם וְהִנֵּה עֹמֵד עַל הַיְאֹר:
Pharaoh dreamt and behold, he was standing on the Nile River
מדרש רבה בראשית – פרשה פט פסקה ד
א”ר יוחנן הרשעים מתקיימין על אלהיהם ופרעה חולם והוא עומד על היאור אבל הצדיקים אלהיהם מתקיים עליהם (בראשית כח) והנה ה’ נצב עליו
Rabbi Yochanan said: The evil ones stand on top of their gods, as it says “Pharaoh was standing on the Nile River”. ( the Nile was one of his gods) Whereas the righteous ones, Hashem stands over them.
This means that Pharaoh used his god to let him do whatever he wanted to do. Whereas, for the righteous ones, Hashem stands upon them and tells them what to do, and they do it.
In this way, we may also be guilty of worshipping an idol, by making ourselves into the god that our religion serves, instead of serving Hashem by doing what He says even though it may be difficult or uncomfortable for us to do.
Let’s make this Shabbat Hagadol a truly great one by trying to remove ourselves from our own brand of idol worship, by acknowledging that every blessing that we have is from Hashem, and by resolving to do what Hashem wants us to do, even though it may not exactly have been our first preference.