This Shabbat, the last Shabbat before Pesach, is known as Shabbat HaGadol — “the Big Shabbat,” “the Great Shabbat.” The exact origin and purpose of this distinction have been debated by sages for many generations, but a common explanation of the “greatness” has to do with the lengthy sermons rabbis historically offered on the day and containing specific and precise instructions about the laws of the holiday.
The “Sefer Shibolei Haleket” (R. Zedekiah b. Abraham Harof Anav, Italy, 1210-1275) explains: “On the Sabbath before Passover, the people stay late into the afternoon … in order to hear the sermon expounding upon the laws of removing leaven. … And it goes on, and the people do not return home until it is over, for if they do not hear it now, when will they hear it, for Passover arrives this week? … Due to this length, the day seems greater and longer to the people than other days, and therefore they refer to this Sabbath as the Great Sabbath.”
On this Shabbat HaGadol, our Torah portion is Tzav, which begins with instructions for Aaron and his sons, the high priests, regarding the “perpetual fire [which] shall be kept burning on the altar, not to go out.” The priests, responsible for the sacrifices, were also obligated to clean the ashes from the altar every morning. The task was necessary in that a fire cannot burn if it is covered in ashes. The ashes needed to be swept away and carried outside the camp.
One key to unlocking the connection between Shabbat HaGadol and the Torah portion is to understand the two-part “search and destroy” mission known as bedikat chametz (searching for chametz) and biur chametz (burning the chametz) that Jews perform just a few days after Shabbat HaGadol. At nightfall on the 14th of Nissan (this year, Thursday, April 2) we search the house for 10 hidden pieces of chametz as well as any other random chametz we may have missed in the cleaning process. The next day, the morning of the first Seder, we burn that chametz before the “fifth hour” (this year, about 12:15 p.m.). These two steps ensure that we have sufficiently cleared our homes of chametz and we are ready to welcome Pesach.
Just as the priests had to completely remove the ashes every day in order allow the fire in the Mishkan (and later, the Temple) to keep burning, chametz is completely forbidden during the holiday; we are taught not to eat it, not to own it and not even to have it in our possession for the days of Pesach. Chametz is to be totally expelled and eliminated. Our rabbinic sages have suggested that ridding our homes and our bodies of chametz is akin to removing the arrogance that builds up in our souls, that which keeps our truest, “cleanest,” best selves from shining brightly. We get rid of chametz, that which puffs up our baked goods, and we get rid of that which puffs up our souls.
There is another key to unlocking the significance of these days and rituals of preparation. We recall that Shabbat is mentioned in both sets of the Ten Commandments. In the Book of Exodus, Shabbat is linked to God’s creation of the world. In the second version, in Deuteronomy, the link is to the Exodus from Egypt: “Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt and the Lord your God freed you from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the Lord your God has commanded you to observe the Sabbath Day.”
When we remember that Shabbat is connected to the Exodus and to freedom, the very themes that Passover invites us to experience, we arrive at another profound lesson. Just as the priests swept away ashes to keep the sacrificial fire burning, and just as we sweep away chametz and arrogance from the hidden corners of our homes and hearts, we strive to remove from ourselves the parts of slavery and oppression we still carry within us.
In his poem “Egypt Inside,” poet Alden Solovy challenges us to rid ourselves of the negative emotions — like fear and anger and shame — that we have allowed to become our taskmasters. He encourages us, with God’s help, to leave Egypt behind. Can we sweep away the tyrannies of our own making and cross over into freedom?
The Torah portion teaches us that the sacrificial altar was kept burning with regular fuel and regular cleaning. The rituals of Pesach preparation ensure that once a year we take special care to clear out the chametz that can obscure our best selves. And Shabbat HaGadol brings it all together: This year, may each of us realize real and lasting redemption.
Rabbi Sharyn Henry is a rabbi at Rodef Shalom Congregation. This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.