This year, Pesach begins on מוצאי שבת, which means that Shabbos Hagadol falls earlier in the day. Shabbos Hagadol is a mysterious kind of day, one that is often clouded by the intensity of Pesach itself. Having them back-to-back this year, I feel the connection between them more strongly.
When did Shabbos Hagadol actually happen in the context of the story of יציאת מצרים? What exactly is Shabbos Hagadol? Why is it called the “Great Shabbos,” when the Jewish people were still slaves in Egypt and the final plague had yet to come for us to finally be a free people?
The great miracle that made this the Great Shabbos occurred when the Jews were commanded to take a sheep and tie it to their bedposts. The first-born מצריים approached their Jewish neighbors, asking what they were doing with the sheep (the עבודה זרה/idol of Egypt). The Jews answered that ה׳ commanded them to take the sheep and sacrifice it in four days, after which the first-born מצריים would be killed. The בכורי מצרים ran to פרעה and begged him to let the Jewish people go. When he did not agree, the בכורי מצרים waged a war against their own elders, killing many of them.
The date of this exchange was the 10th of Nissan, a Shabbos. We know this because יציאת מצרים happened on a Thursday. One reason שבת הגדול was not set for the 10th of Nissan is that 40 years later, the 10th of Nissan would be the day of Miriam’s passing. Some people fast on that day, not an appropriate way to celebrate a great miracle.
There must be a better reason why the miracle שבת הגדול is celebrated on Shabbos regardless of the date of the month. Essentially, what happened on the Shabbos before יציאת מצרים is forever connected to Shabbos, more so than to the day of the month. The מדרש in ילקוט שמעוני explains in תהלים: מזמור שיר ליום השבת/A psalm, a song for the Sabbath Day, that Shabbos is the day when the מזיקין/destructive angels rest from their work, that is, they do not do any damage on Shabbos, similar to the metaphor of the wolf resting with the sheep. These angels can rest in one of two ways: either they will simply cease to exist, or they will exist, but cease their destructive activities and pursue goodness. The second definition is clearly the higher one. Shabbos follows this same model. During שבת בראשית, the midrash says that the light of Shabbos lasted for 36 hours – there was no darkness. The darkness itself became light. When Moshiach comes, we will live with that same reality.
The first-born sons of מצרים were the darkness, the strength of מצרים who, on שבת הגדול, became agents for the good of בני ישראל. They became the catalysts for בני ישראל to finally leave מצרים. The darkness itself became light.
I once had a student who used to draw in class. The squiggles used to drive most of her teachers crazy because they could not imagine how this child was focusing and absorbing the information. My colleagues used to complain bitterly that they could not get this child to focus. But in reality, the students’ doodling was actually helping the student concentrate and was not a distraction at all. This student grew up to be a very meticulous adult, using that very trait of detail in the service of her community and professional life. The darkness itself became light.
My wish for you and your families is to experience the exodus of Egypt where every negativity or toxicity in your lives will be transformed into positive, bright energy, which is exactly what will usher in the ultimate redemption with משיח צדקינו.
Chag Kasher v’Sameach!