Shabbat HaGadol – Listening to our ancestors’ story – and our own

Shabbat HaGadol – Listening to our ancestors’ story – and our own

Temple Emeth, Teaneck, Reform

Who causes the wind to blow and the rain to descend.”

This line is inserted into our prayers during the Jewish rainy season, which ends this week on the first day of Passover. Implied in this line – when I recite it at least – is the following caveat: “in appropriate quantities to fill reservoirs, to help crops grow, and to moisten the earth so that wildflowers soon dot every hillside.” Last week’s severe storm – which randomly took life, damaged property, and debilitated our community for days – reminds us that while we think we have control over ourselves and our surroundings, a single fallen tree can show us we don’t. Part of being a person of faith is coping with and trying to understand the fragility of our existence within God’s creation.

Stated another way, the words of a prayer we recite all the time without a second thought may all of a sudden have new significance or even new irony. The words haven’t changed; we have, because of an experience that has altered our perspective.

In the past week, we mourned the dead, removed the fallen trees, and bailed out our basements. But we have done something more than that. We have shared our stories of damage and recovery in a way that we rarely do. Perhaps because the stories were told within the context of a shared experience, I have found my friends, my neighbors, and even myself to be better listeners.

It is a great background from which to approach Passover. After all, our ancestors who experienced the Exodus from Egypt probably asked one another similar questions when they reached freedom. “Can you believe what just happened? Is everyone in your family OK now? Where were you when you got the news?” Their experience was so transformational that God wanted future generations to know about it, so we have ritualized the telling of their story at the seder. It is a ritual we have maintained for centuries, and which has maintained us as well. But for many people it has become too ritualized. We recite the words but they don’t have the impact they should. This year can be different for two reasons.

First, following the storm, we can relate to the fear and the relief our ancestors must have felt. Second, we have become better listeners. Having heard the stories of our friends and neighbors, we are ready to hear the story of our ancestors with a new relevance. In doing so, we fulfill the words from the Haggadah: “In every generation, a person must see himself as if he went free from Egypt.”

This Shabbat is designated on our calendar as Shabbat HaGadol, or “The Great Sabbath.” In previous generations, when a Shabbat sermon was not the norm, the rabbi nonetheless preached on this day because on the Shabbat before the festival, it was important for the community to fully comprehend both the laws of Passover and their spiritual import.

In the Haftarah portion for this special Shabbat, the prophet Malachi (3:23-24) proclaims: “Behold, I will send the prophet Elijah to you before the coming of the awesome [gadol], fearful day of the Eternal. He shall turn the hearts of parents to children and the hearts of children to their parents.”

This, perhaps, sums up my expectation for Passover 5770. On a day when generations are gathered around the table, let us turn to one another as we have not done before. Let us listen with greater sensitivity to each other and to the story that has brought us together. As with our prayer for wind and rain, let us be prepared for the old words to affect us in a new way. And despite the fragility of our existence, let us look ahead to the end of our rainy season with hope and gratitude for all the blessings we enjoy.