Entire seforim have been written to explain why this is such a great Shabbos. This year, let us follow in the path of the Gerrer admorim to discover some of the greatness of this Shabbos and how we can share in the wealth.
The Sefas Emes, second Gerrer Rebbe, but grandson of the first, the Chiddushei Harim, suggested many reasons over the years. One of the first (5632, page 31) was actually a paradox. “Shabbos Hagadol,” he taught, “is so entitled because it in fact destroys (mashbis) sham greatness (gadlus). This refers to any simulated power that is not recognized as coming from Hashem. Shabbos in general helps man rid himself of this counterfeit illusion of power by testifying boldly that Hashem is the One and Only.” The Shabbos before Pesach, when we rejected idolatry and any force in the world (see Mechilta to Shemos 21:21) other than Hashem, we celebrated true greatness, that of Hashem.
Twenty years later (5652, page 37), the Sefas Emes added that Avrohom Avinu was called “ha’adam hagadol ba’anakim – the greatest of men even amongst the giants” because he had always yearned to be the father of a nation that would serve the true G-d” (Soferim 21:9). At the moment we accepted mitzvos in Mitzrayim (see Haggadah Shel Pesach: Ve’at eirom ve’erya…va’omer loch bedomayich chayi – You were bereft of mitzvos, so I gave you the mitzvos of the blood of the Peasch and the blood of bris milah”), we became truly great ourselves. This, too, was the greatness of knowing that our only claim to existence is that we are servants of Hashem. As the Sefas Emes concludes, just as this greatness began on that first pivotal Shabbos, so will it be completed just before the final geulah. Klal Yisroel knows this instinctively, and in a form of nevuah (prophesy) we return to Shabbos Hagadol for an annual reminder of what greatness really means.
The Sefas Emes’ son, Rav Avrohom Mordechai, known as the Imrei Emes, continued this theme over many Shabbos Hagadol tishen and farbreingen. In the first of these (5669), he quotes the Medrash which explains the words, “Who smites the Egyptians with their firstborn.” This means that when the firstborn heard that they were designated to die, they waged war against their brother Mitzrim. When the Bnei Yisroel saw this miracle of a civil war amongst the Egyptians themselves, they were truly free. This happened on Shabbos Hagadol, and it was then that we realized that we were truly Hashem’s firstborn, as Hashem had told us all along. The perception of our spiritual greatness returns at this time every year, if only we open our minds and hearts to appreciate its presence. This is also the meaning of the prayer we recite three times daily, “Teka beshofar gadol lecheiruseinu – Sound the great shofar for our freedom.” The Imrei Emes teaches that “the great shofar” refers to Shabbos Hagadol and sa nes (raise the banner) refers to the month of Nissan. These are the times that ratified our greatness and instilled the annual ability to rise to greatness ourselves.
The Imrei Emes’ son, Rav Yisroel, known as the Bais Yisroel, adds a beautiful thought to those of his ancestors. He suggests that on this Shabbos, we all have the ability to grow from katnus (i.e., childishness and small-mindedness) into gadlus (maturity and loftiness). A number of the earlier rebbes had taught that Shabbos Hagadol on the national level is similar to a bar mitzvah boy entering adulthood. He begins to put on tefillin, signifying his commitment to mitzvos, as we all did on Shabbos Hagadol by eschewing idolatry and embracing the mitzvos of Korban Pesach and bris milah. Furthermore, adds the Bais Yisroel, Shabbos itself is the most propitious time to achieve this growth, for just as the bar mitzvah boy becomes a man in an instant, so did we go from spiritual nakedness (eirom) to the glory of mitzvos and spiritual redemption (geulas hanefesh) in the single moment when “Vayehi shom legoy,” we became a nation in Egypt.
The Bais Yisroel’s brother, the Lev Simcha, who was one of the Gerrer Rebbes I was privileged to meet, suggested on several occasions (see, for instance, 5739, page 20 and 5742, page 22) that this Shabbos is called Shabbos Hagadol in honor of the Medrash that says that Avrohom Avinu made a “mishteh gadol – a great feast” (Bereishis 21:8). The Gemara (Bava Metziah 87a) relates that Avrohom Avinu invited all the gedolei hador, the greatest people of that generation. However, the Medrash explains that gadol refers solely to “Gedol Ha’olamim,” the Great One of all the worlds, meaning, of course, Hashem. The Lev Simcha explains that here, too, the term gadol refers to Hashem, for He alone redeemed us, as we recite annually in the Haggadah, “I not an angel, I not a Seraph, it was I alone.” This Shabbos represents our establishing that unique relationship between the Creator and ourselves for all eternity. He goes on to quote his grandfather, the Sefas Emes, that this Shabbos is so great that it includes all the Shabbosos of the year. By adhering properly to the kedusha of this special Shabbos, we are enabled to connect with the spirit of Hashem, which inhabits everything, both physical and spiritual, in the world. In this way, Hagadol stands for both the Creator Himself and our ability to perceive Him in every aspect of our lives.
The youngest son of the Imrei Emes, Rav Pinchos Menachem, later known as the Pnei Menachem, also references the teachings of his ancestors about Shabbos Hagadol and adds his own approach. He quotes the Sefas Emes (5642) that according to the Zohar (Yisro 88a), all the days of the following week derive their blessings from the previous Shabbos. Since Shabbos Hagadol directly precedes Pesach, its greatness is that all of the wonders of Pesach derive from this amazing Shabbos. The Pnei Menachem (Parshas Metzora 5755 and Otzar Drashos maamorim, page 131) adds that Rav Bunim of Peshicha often taught that the preparation is even greater than the mitzvah. Thus, Shabbos Hagadol is the greatest Shabbos of all, for not only does it prepare the spiritual riches of the coming weekdays, but it is the matrix of all the brachos received from Pesach itself.
Interestingly, my rebbi, Rav Yitzchok Hutner zt”l, who was raised in a house of Gerrer Chassidus and Torah, provides us with an original exposition of why this Shabbos is called Hagadol, incorporating all of these interpretations. He writes (Maamorei Pachad Yitzchok, Pesach, 37, page 167) that the promise that we would become “a goy gadol – a great nation” (Bereishis 12:2) results in the title Elokei Avrohom (Rashi ibid.). What exactly is this greatness? He explains that normally, in order to sanctify something, it must have some kind of physical substance. However, time itself is the ultimate insubstantial entity, so how are we able to consecrate time itself and create zemanei kedusha? His answer is that since every day we edge closer and closer to the great days of Acharis Hayomim, when kedusha will permeate the very air we breathe, we can even now make certain times holy. The posuk refers to the gifts of the future days as yeish, something quite substantial, as it says “lehanchil ohavei yeish – I have what to bequeath to those who love me” (Mishlei 8:21). This means that even the most tenuous of entities will become concrete and tangible. The holiness of Shabbos is made possible in this world precisely because it is me’ein Olam Haba, a microcosm of the future world. Our ability, through the medium of Kiddush Hachodesh (see last week’s column on Parshas Hachodesh), allows us to sanctify Yom Tov as well. We can make the intangible tangible by channeling Olam Haba in the here and now. Pesach was the very first of our Yomim Tovim as a nation, and the Shabbos that preceded it represents the very first time this process was implemented. The sublime kedusha of Shabbos overflowed its banks, consecrating the days ahead and making them into a Yom Tov. For this reason, it is called Shabbos Hagadol, for it is literally the Mother Shabbos that gives birth to an infinity of kedusha through the centuries and millennia.
We can hear echoes here of the Sefas Emes’ teaching that Shabbos Hagadol is the source of our ability to recognize Hashem as the exclusive source of all kedusha and its dissemination through the universe. We can also now better understand the seminal words of the Imrei Emes that the “freedom” we won on that first Shabbos Hagadol was the ability to be ourselves, the conduit for spreading Hashem’s word and kedusha through the world. The teaching of the Bais Yisroel that we went as a nation from koton to gadol is now also apparent, since we now have the concrete ability to transfer and transmit kedusha to others. It was, however, the Lev Simchah who most directly demonstrated how the intangible can be made completely tangible during simchos and zemanei kodesh, such as when Avrohom Avinu made his historic mishteh. Rav Hutner most closely echoes the words of the Pnei Menachem, when the rebbe speaks of the week being blessed in all that it becomes from the kedusha of the previous Shabbos.
May we be zocheh this Shabbos Hagadol to spread the kedusha of Shabbos to the coming Yom Tov and far beyond, im yirtzeh Hashem.