This d’var for Shabbat HaGadol is by Peter Rubenstein.
Today is Shabbat HaGadol, the Great Sabbath, the Shabbat before the beginning of Passover. This is the sentence with which I started my Bar Mitzvah speech in 1959. Upon reflecting on this particular day over the past 60+ years, I have been impressed with how important the act of listening is, not only on this day, but in terms of Passover in general. So why is this day called the Great Sabbath? One humorous reason I ran across is that in earlier times, it was traditionally the time where the Rabbi would give a sermon of great length, and probably boring as well, on the detailed laws that were supposed to be adhered to during the holiday. As good a sermon writer that our Rabbi is, I do not think we would wish having to listen to such a sermon on anyone. Another reason has to do with a reference in the last verse of the haftarah that refers to the coming of the great and terrible day of the Lord which also involves the act of listening. I will return to this in a couple of minutes. Every year during the seder, we are commanded to tell our children the story so that in listening to its recitation, we can envision ourselves as participants in the Exodus from Egypt. During the seder, we yearly also listen to our children and our other guests after about 30 min. ask not the four questions but a fifth one: how much longer before we can eat?
Passover is a holiday of redemption in which we celebrate the deliverance of the Israelites by God from enslavement in Egypt. The choice of this haftarah from Malachi for Shabbat HaGadol revolves around its mention of Elijah the Prophet in the last verse. Traditionally, besides solving all the problems of the Jews, Elijah is the one who is supposed to announce the coming of the Messiah, who will redeem and deliver the Israelites, and the Messiah traditionally is supposed to appear around Passover. As evidence of the importance that Elijah has in our tradition, at the Seder we welcome him into our homes with his own cup of wine and look very carefully to determine whether he has reduced the volume of wine just a bit.
But now, I want to focus on the theme of listening in this haftarah selection. I recently watched a movie on the Hallmark Channel entitled Hearts of Spring. These movies basically are feel-good love stories based around a central theme with variations from story to story. In this particular story, a member of the couple to be is a single father with a son. The father believes that the way to raise the son is via strict discipline where he gives orders and the son obeys. Of course, the son rebels. The other part of the love-couple is a divorced Mom with a daughter. Her idea of parenthood is to treat her daughter as an equal, a friend, to basically reason with the daughter and trust she will make the right choice in her decisions. Of course the daughter’s choice is not always that of the Mom’s, and angst ensues. Clearly, neither parenting style alone will generally work. I used to be a great nag with our kids, following in my Mother’s footsteps, and that tactic clearly did not work with me or my kids. The couple in the film realize their dysfunction through some agonizingly sweet dialogue, fall in love, and presumably treat their off-spring with elements from both parenting styles thereafter.
The haftarah, in the beginning, reflects the first parenting style. According to Malachi, following the return from exile and the building of the second Temple, the Israelites have lost their moral compass. They defraud God by not giving their full tithe amount to the Temple. They practice sorcery, commit adultery, lie, cheat their workers, and subvert the cause of the widow, the orphan and the stranger. This state of affairs is encapsulated by a question posed by Malachi earlier in the text: Do we not all have one Father? Did not one God create us? Why do we profane the covenant of our ancestors by being unfaithful to one another? This litany of misbehavior is eerily similar to what Isaiah rails against in the haftarah we read on Yom Kippur morning. So, in essence, the Israelites have ceased to listen to the commandments that God gave them through Moses at Sinai, and, God, being a true disciplinarian, responds by threatening the Israelites with utter destruction and desolation if they do not turn from their evil ways: shuvu ailai, v’ashuva alechem – turn back to me and I will turn back to you. In this scenario, listening amounts to hearing and obeying God’s commandments. There is no room for discussion. To try to entice the misbehaving to “return”, God, instead, uses fear by describing the day when He will visit utter destruction on those who do not obey: for lo, that day is at hand, burning like an oven. All the arrogant and all the doers of evil shall be straw, and the day that is coming – said the Lord of Hosts – shall burn them to ashes and leave them neither stock nor boughs. Sorta reminds one of Dante’s vision of Hell. Of course, there is always a small cadre of the people who have stayed true to God’s laws. God recognizes them and promises to spare them and make them prosper while he annihilates everyone else, underscoring the importance of the choice put before the people.
But a haftarah generally is not supposed to end on a low note. In the final verses, there is a chance for a reprieve, and this is where listening comes into play again in what I think is one of the most powerful verses in the Bible: Lo, I will send the Prophet Elijah to you before the coming of the awesome fearful day of the Lord; He shall turn the hearts of the parents to the children and the hearts of the children to the parents, so that when I come I do not strike the whole land with utter destruction. In other words, what will allow us to avert the evil decree is to listen to one another within generations and especially between generations. Civilization depends on recognizing the needs and wants of those other than ourselves. We gain insight into these needs by listening to others and viewing our lives and needs in the context of those needs and of society as a whole. Failure to do so leads to estrangement from those we love, discord, anger, and a total drive to satisfying one’s own needs at the expense of others – in essence, behavior that will lead to societal disruption. Listening to our children and our parents – the dialogue has to be in both directions – does not mean that a parent must cede all responsibility to the child or that the child must unquestionably obey the parent. Listening implies that there is potential worth in what the other party has to offer and that we can each gain insight from the other leading to a synthesis of ideas that will produce an outcome more favorable to all. All we have to do to appreciate what happens when this exchange does not occur is to look at what is going on in our government today, a situation in which both sides are yelling at one another instead of listening to each other and then acting on the merits of both sides, a course of action otherwise called compromise.
The dialogue at the end of the haftarah refers to children and parents, the elements of a family. The welfare of the society depends on the health and welfare of the family, and much of halacha is focused on ensuring the success and health of the family unit. The size of the family just increases going from family to community to state to country to world. As the song goes, We are Family. If we all do not start listening more to one another, to gain insight into the thoughts, hopes and aspirations of one another, to learn how to treat people with respect and to find value in the differences that distinguish us from one another, the societal dysfunction that we are witnessing in cities such as Atlanta and Boulder will continue to increase and that great and terrible day of the Lord may be upon us sooner than we think. There is still time to change our ways, to return: shuvah ailai. Redemption awaits. Let’s take advantage of it.