The Shabbat that precedes the holiday of Passover has been named by Jewish tradition as Shabbat Hagadol – the great Shabbat. Over the ages there have been numerous explanations and comments as to why this Shabbat is set apart from all others. The view that is recorded in rabbinic literature is that this Shabbat marks the anniversary of the Jewish people’s preparation of the sacrificial lamb for the Passover offering while they were yet in Egypt awaiting their imminent deliverance. Other reasons for the name have also been advanced and all reasons and comments have merit and have been treasured in Jewish life over the centuries.
Allow me to introduce another idea that I feel has relevance and importance. Passover represents freedom from bondage, a release from slavery and the ability for myriad possibilities of self-growth and accomplishment. However, human history testifies to the fact that freedom carries with it many responsibilities and dangers. In fact, over human history there has been no consensus as to what the true definition of freedom is or should be.
Humans vacillate from unlimited hedonism and unbridled licentiousness on one hand and tyranny of thought, action and conformity of society on the other. Everyone claims to speak in the name of freedom, but we are aware that all ideas of freedom are subject to interpretation and circumstance. For many people freedom of speech only applies to speech that they approve of and agree with. And this is true for all freedoms to which we pay lip service. We find it hard to stomach ideas of which we do not approve.
Therefore, there is a necessity for education and training in order to somehow see to it that freedom is properly defined and implemented in society. Shabbat is that training ground for freedom. In its essence, and paradoxically through its restrictions, it frees us from the chains of everyday life that so bind and constrict us. It allows for a freedom of the spirit and the imagination, forethought and for rest, which are almost universally absent from our regular six-day workweek.
The Talmud even elevated this concept to a new height by saying that freedom was inscribed on the tablets of the law that Moshe brought down from Sinai. Only by understanding the divine law and by appreciating one’s role in the universe that God created can one achieve a proper understanding of the gift of freedom. It is obvious that misapplication of freedom has led to untold tragedies for millions of people over the history of mankind.
The responsibilities of freedom are great and demanding and require perspective and inner discipline. These items are the gifts of the Shabbat to the Jewish people, for they shape the ideas and goals of freedom for all those that partake of the holy nature of that day. Without education and training for freedom, freedom itself may become an unbearable burden and a liability instead of an asset.
Perhaps this Shabbat becomes the great Shabbat because it teaches us how to be free and protects us from the lethal dangers of misapplied freedom. Freedom is not measured only by outside forces, governments and societal pressures. It is really measured by the internal emotions and mentality of the individual. One can live in the freest of societies and yet feel that one is a captive and a slave.
There is a scene described in a book written by one of the Russian Jewish dissidents who was in a cell with a clergyman of another faith who was a monotheistic believer and a person who was moral to his very core. In one of the many discussions that this Jewish dissident had with his cellmate, they both concluded that only in this dungeon did they both feel completely free. And though they both desired to be released from the prison, they agreed that they probably would never again feel themselves to be as free as they did at that moment in the darkness of the jail.
All the rules and ideas that are expressed in the Torah are meant to give us this emotion of freedom. Freedom is the connection of ourselves to our inner soul and to the Creator that has fashioned us all.