Passover in Tehran
Passover in TehranHassan Sarbakhsian

Shabbat ha-Gadol, “the Great Shabbat”, the Shabbat immediately before Pesach, commemorates our final Shabbat in Egypt, 3,336 years ago, just five days before the Exodus.

“The Shabbat before Pesach is called Shabbat Ha-Gadol because of the miracle that happened thereon” (Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 430:1).

What was the miracle?

– “Every single Jew had taken the lamb for his Pesach sacrifice [on the 10th of Nissan] and tied it to his bed-post… The Egyptians saw this, and asked them: ‘Why are you doing this?’ They responded: ‘In order to slaughter it for the purpose of Pesach, as Hashem has commanded us’. Their teeth were set on edge because the Israelites had slaughtered their god, yet they were unable even to say anything to them. And because the tenth of the month that year was a Shabbat, the Shabbat before Pesach was ever after to be called Shabbat ha-Gadol” (Mishnah Berurah ad loc.).

The Haftarah for Shabbat Ha-Gadol comprises Malachi 3:4-24. These 21 verses are the final prophecy that G-d ever granted; they are His farewell to His nation.

Malachi was the very last of the prophets, prophesying during the early Second Temple era. The Radak (Rabbi David Kimchi, France, c.1160-c.1235), in his commentary to Malachi 1:1, notes that Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi were contemporaneous. However, the exact times of both Haggai’s and Zechariah’s prophecies are recorded in the first verse of each Book, both in the second year of King Darius; Malachi’s exact time is nowhere recorded, and the Radak deduces from this that Malachi prophesied later.

Rabbi Joseph Hertz (Chief Rabbi of the British Empire 1913-1946) summarises Malachi’s time and mission:

“The second Temple had been rebuilt, but the high hopes of the returned exiles had not been fulfilled. The lamp of religious enthusiasm burned but dimly in that age, and both priest and people treated sacred things with a weary indifference... It is to such a generation that Malachi brings his ‘burden’, i.e. utterance, message. He reaffirms and boldly proclaims the Divine election and the deathlessness of Israel” (commentary to the Haftarah of Toldot).

In many ways, Israel’s national situation in Malachi’s day mirrors the situation today. The nation had begun to return to its ancestral homeland, but the bulk were still firmly ensconced in exile. When Persia conquered Babylon and inherited its empire, it became the “America” of the time – the world’s undisputed and unchallenged superpower, and home to the biggest Jewish community outside of Israel.

And then, as now, the Jews of Persia and Babylon – including some of the greatest Torah-sages of the generation – were reluctant to leave their physical comforts and spiritual fortresses in exile for the lower standards of living and spiritual heights of Israel.

Though the Return to Zion had begun, it was still controversial. Even those Jews who had made Aliyah to Israel were somewhat hesitant, unsure how permanent their future in their homeland really was.

It is to this reality that Malachi addresses his prophetic message.

Therefore, at the very beginning of his prophecy, the prophet reassures the Children of Israel of G-d’s love for His people: “I loved you – said Hashem – and you said, How have You loved us?! Was Esau not Jacob’s brother? – says Hashem – and I love Jacob; and I hated Esau, and I will make his mountains desolate...” (Malachi 1:2-3).

To understand the impact of Malachi’s prophecy, we have to consider the historical context. Not just that he was addressing a generation traumatised by exile, hesitantly tottering back to its homeland, as yet unsure of its future; also that this was the end of the era of prophecy. This was the prophetic message which was G-d’s farewell to His children; this was to be the last message that G-d would ever deliver directly to Israel until the era of mashiach in which prophecy will be restored.

The Haftarah for Shabbat Ha-Gadol begins (atypically) in the middle of a paragraph: “Then the meal-offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to Hashem, as they used to be, and as in the earliest years” (Malachi 3:4) – that is, by promising the restoration of sacrifices in the rebuilt Holy Temple; and the prophet continues by promising the restoration of G-d’s intimate closeness to His people and the restoration of His justice.

And he concludes by promising that G-d will ultimately send Eliyahu the prophet to herald “the great and awesome Day of Hashem” .

How does G-d part from His nation? What is the one message that He wants us to carry throughout the generations?

– “Remember the Torah of Moshe My servant, which I commanded him in Horeb [Sinai] for all Israel, decrees and statutes” (Malachi 3:22).

Though this is an exhortation to keep the Torah and to remain faithful to it, it also contains some deeper and far more subtle teachings.

There is, after all, something strange here: why does the prophet speak of “...the Torah of Moshe My servant...”? Surely G-d gave us the Torah?! Moshe was, to be sure, the scribe who faithfully wrote the Torah – but this means that the Torah is G-d’s, not Moshe’s! Indeed, the prophet says this explicitly: “...the Torah of Moshe My servant, which I commanded him”.

The Midrash (Tanhuma, Shoftim 5 and Mechilta de-Rabbi Yishmael, Parashat Beshallach, Massechta de-Shira 1) explains that because Moshe was willing to risk his very life for the Torah, it is called by his name.

Let us now turn to the dictum of Rabbi Shimon ben Yochay in the Mishnah: “There are three crowns: the Crown of the Torah, the Crown of the Kehunah, and the Crown of Royalty. And the Crown of a good name surpasses them all” (Pirkei Avot 4:13).

He then expands on this idea: “The Crown of the Torah is the Crown of Moshe, as it says ‘Remember the Torah of Moshe My servant, which I commanded him’. The Crown of the Kehunah is the Crown of Aaron... The Crown of Royalty is the Crown of King David... The Crown of a good name surpasses them all – let everyone who merits the Torah come and take it! Aaron merited the Kehunah solely in the merit of the Torah... David merited the kingship solely in the merit of the Torah” (Avot de-Rabbi Natan 48).

And so this final prophetic message to “remember the Torah of Moshe My servant, which I commanded him” is inseparable from the Kehunah and the Jewish kingship.

Today, in the absence of a functioning Holy Temple, the Kehunah has almost no function. What, after all, can a Kohen do today? – Receive the first Aliyah to the Torah, bless the congregation every day (outside of Israel only on the Festivals), and receive the five silver shekels (or the equivalent in modern currency) for redeeming a first-born son.

A functioning Kehunah in the rebuilt Holy Temple in Jerusalem is something we look forward to, something we pray for (implicitly or explicitly) dozens of times a day, something which we believe, as a basic principle of Jewish faith, will happen one day.

Similarly the kingship – the long-awaited descendant of King David who will resurrect the Jewish monarchy, the mashiach, the anointed one, the man who will be anointed as king over Israel.

So the prophet’s charge to us, “Remember the Torah of Moshe My servant, which I commanded him in Horeb for all Israel, decrees and statutes”, this charge which seals all prophecies for all generations, implicitly includes the yearning for the restoration of the Holy Temple with the Kehunah and for the mashiach who will restore the Davidic line of kings of Israel.

And now we come to a singularity in the text here. זִכְרוּ תּוֹרַת מֹשֶׁה עַבְדִּי, “remember the Torah of Moshe My servant...”. In the word זִכְרוּ (remember), the letter ז (zayin) is written larger than all the other letters: זכרו (in Masoretic nomenclature, zayin rabbati).

What does this enlarged zayin signify?

– I suggest that it is an oblique reference to the first battle that the Children of Israel ever fought in history, the battle that Shim’on and Levi fought in Shechem to rescue their sister Dinah, whom the Hivvite prince, Shechem son of Hamor had kidnapped and raped (Genesis 34).

To rescue their sister and to protect their family from such an outrage in the future, Shim’on and Levi not only sprang Dinah from Shechem’s palace, they also massacred all the men of the city. Maybe overkill, but certainly a powerful disincentive to anyone else who ever considered violating a Hebrew girl again.

Their father objected to this slaughter – not on moral grounds, but for an eminently practical consideration: “You have discomfited me, making me odious to the inhabitants of the Land... I am few in number, and if they conjoin their forces and attack me, then I and my household will be annihilated” (Genesis 34:30).

To which Shim’on and Levi responded simply: “Will he make our sister as a harlot?” (v. 31). In Hebrew, הַכְזוֹנָה יַעֲשֶׂה אֶת אֲחוֹתֵנוּ?. And in the first word of their response, הַכְזוֹנָה (as a harlot), the letter zayin is written larger than all the other letters: הכזונה. They emphasize the letter ז; and the word זַיִן, zayin, means “weapon”.

This is the sole zayin rabbati in the Torah, and I suggest that zayin rabbati which introduces the final paragraph of the final prophet alludes to it.

And to understand the full purport of this, I cite another charming reference to Malachi’s prophecy:

The Talmud (Shabbat 89a) relates that when Moshe stood before G-d, He told Moshe that had it not been for him, the Torah would not have been given. Moshe responded: “Sovereign of the Universe! You have this treasure stored up, in which You delight every day. Can I consider that it was my benefit that wrought it?!”

And G-d responded to him: “Because you were humble, it will be called by your name, as it says ‘remember the Torah of Moshe My servant’”. Combine this with the above-quoted Midrash, that because Moshe was willing to risk his very life for the Torah it is called by his name, and we reach an inspiring conclusion:

Because the Children of Israel (literally the Children of Israel, the sons of Jacob who had recently been renamed Israel), were willing to risk their very lives in battle in Canaan, the Land became called by their name – the Land of Israel.

It is a fundamental component of Pesach that the redemption from Egypt – our first national redemption – is the paradigm for the final redemption: “In Nisan they were redeemed, in Nisan they are destined in the future to be redeemed” (Rosh Hashanah 11a), or even more specifically, “on the 15th of Nisan they were redeemed from Egypt, on the 15th of Nisan they are destined in the future to be redeemed from subjugation to all exiles” (Tanhuma, Bo 9).

And so, as we approach this Festival which celebrates the first redemption; as we celebrate this final Shabbat before Pesach, Shabbat Ha-Gadol, which recalls the great miracle of that last Shabbat in Egypt 3,336 years ago –

– our Sages decreed that we would read this final exhortation of the final prophet, the exhortation to keep the faith throughout the long generations until “the great and awesome Day of Hashem” (Malachi 3:23).

And the prophet intimated to us that this long-awaited Day of Hashem harks back to the first battle that the Children of Israel ever fought in their Land, even before they were sovereign in the Land.

As then, so today. The “great and awesome Day of Hashem”, or the “Day of the great and awesome Hashem”, will come in the merit of our courage and determination to fight for our Land.

Chag sameach!