Shabbat HaGadol 5767 — God Loves You!

God loves you.

But I don’t blame you if you don’t know it.  Most rabbis forget to point this out to their congregations.  I did a Google search on the phrase “God loves you.”  840,000 hits, and all the ones that come out on the first few pages are from Christian sites, mostly citing sending Jesus as the proof.

But Judaism does also teach that God loves you.  In fact, that is the spiritual theme for today.  Today, the Shabbat before Passover, is known as “Shabbat Hagadol,” the great Shabbat.  Last year on this Shabbat I mentioned that one of the reasons this day is called Shabbat Hagadol is because it was one of the two days a year when the rabbi would give a major sermon – the theme of today’s sermon generally being what I did last year, a review of the laws of Passover.

However, there are other more spiritual reasons given for calling today Shabbat Hagadol.  The Slonimer Rebbe points out that every Shabbat is “gadol”—as we say in the Birkat Hamazon, the grace after meals on Shabbat, לפניך  כי יום זה גדול וקדוש הוא “for this great and holy day is before you.”   So what is it that makes this Shabbat in particular so great that we call it “hagadol,” THE great Shabbat of all the great Shabbats of the year?

There is a teaching which says the redemption would come immediately if only Israel would truly observe two Shabbatot,  a teaching which is based on a verse in the Torah which says et Shabtotai tishmeru, if Israel will observe my Sabbaths…all sorts of blessings will follow.  But the Slonimer teaches that Shabtotai, “my Sabbath’s,” alludes not to just any two Sabbaths, but to two different aspects of the Sabbath — shamor (to guard) and zachor (to remember). 

Shamor and zachor refer to the fact that we have two different versions of the 10 Commandments, one in the book of Exodus and one in the book of Deuteronomy.  In Exodus we are told to remember the Sabbath day, and in Deuteronomy we are told to guard the Sabbath day.  The rabbis understand guarding as dealing with what are called the lo ta’aseh commandments, the negative commandments, things we are commanded to refrain from doing, such as the different forms of work that we abstain from on the Sabbath.  To remember the Sabbath, on the other hand, is understood as dealing with the positive Commandments, the things we do to make Shabbat special, such as saying the Kiddush blessing over wine, and having a special meal.

The lo ta’aseh commandments reflect the side of our relationship with God that is grounded in yirah, fear or awe.  It’s like a child who refrains from doing something wrong because she’s afraid of being punished.  The positive commandments, on the other hand, reflect the side of our relationship with God that is grounded in ahava, in love, much like a child might run to do something a parent asks out of love for the parent.

These two sides of our relationship with God, yirah and ahava, awe and love, each have a particular Shabbat in which they are ascendant.  In Kabbalah, Jewish mysticism, it is taught that Shabbat is the source of blessings for the entire week.  Blessings descend on Shabbat which nourish and sustain the other six days of the week.  On Shabbat Shuva, the Shabbat before Yom Kippur, the awe and fear represented by the mighty Day of Atonement, the day when our souls are held in judgment, is drawn down.  Today is the other side of the equation: today we draw down the love associated with the holiday of Passover.

Why is Passover associated with love?  Maybe it’s because in spring love is in the air, as it says in the Bible, in the Song of Songs, “For, behold, the winter is past, the rain is over and gone; The flowers appear on the earth; the time of the singing bird has come, and the voice of the turtledove is heard in our land; The fig tree puts forth her green figs, and the vines in blossom give forth their scent. Arise, my love, my beautiful one, and come away.”

The Song of Songs is associated with Passover, as we always read it in the synagogue on the Shabbat that falls during Passover. The Song of Songs is definitely the raciest book in the Bible, and it is all about love.  The opening verses proclaim “The song of songs, which is Solomon’s. Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth; for your love is better than wine. Your anointing oils are fragrant, your name is oil poured out, therefore the maidens love you. Draw me after you, we will run; the king has brought me into his chambers; we will be glad and rejoice in you, we will praise your love more than wine; rightly they love you.”

You might be wondering why such a racy love letter would be included in the Bible.  It’s because the rabbis understood this poetic work as referring not to the love of a man for a woman, but rather to the love of God, the lover, for Israel, the beloved, and vice versa.  The Song of Songs was a favorite of our great Rabbi Akiva, as it says in the Midr
ash: “For the whole world only existed, so to speak, for the day on which the Song of Songs was given to it. Why so? Because all the Writings are holy, and this is holy of holies.”

The Midrash goes on to proclaim “THE SONG OF SONGS: as if to say, the best of songs, the most excellent of songs, the finest of songs. Let us recite songs and praises to Him who has made us a theme of song in the world.”

One reason the rabbis so appreciate the Song of Songs is that the love is reciprocal.  The Midrash explains “In all other songs either God praises Israel or they praise Him. Here, however, they praise Him and He praises them. He praises them: ‘Behold you are beautiful, my beloved (I, 16),’ and they praise Him: ‘Behold you are beautiful, my beloved, verily pleasant (I, 17).’”

The rabbis took it so seriously that the Song of Songs is to be read as allegory that in the Talmud they say “He who recites a verse of the Song of Songs and treats it as a [secular] air brings evil upon the world.”

There is another connection between Passover and the Song of Songs found in the text itself:  “Behold the voice of my Beloved comes skipping over mountains, hopping over valleys,” reminiscent of the way that God skipped over the houses of the Jewish people on Passover.

God skipping over the houses of the Jewish people and redeeming them from slavery in Egypt is a true sign of God’s love.  The Midrash tells us that during their days in Egypt the Jewish people had descended to the 49th level of spiritual impurity.  There are only 50 levels – to reach the 50th level is to be spiritually destroyed.  The Israelites were as unworthy as they could be and yet God still redeemed them from slavery.

This is a demonstration of the unconditional nature of God’s love.  In Psalm 136 we recite repeatedly, ki l’olam chasdo, for God’s lovingkindness is eternal.  The prophet Jeremiah says “The Lord has appeared to me, far away, saying, I have loved you with an everlasting love; therefore I have remained true to you.”

God shows Her love for us in many different ways.   That we are here, and alive, is one of those ways.  The world is powered by God.  The Divine energy powers the universe.  Mostly we’re so busy, we don’t notice.  But our prayer book challenges us to pay attention.  In the Amidah, three times a day, we thank God for the miracles that are with us daily.  The miracles of life, of health, of beauty in the world.

Many people say it’s easier for them to find God in nature than in the prayerbook.  I suppose at no time of year is that more true than in the spring, when the world is coming back to life.  When I went for a run yesterday the grass smelled like spring, I heard birds singing, and saw flowers blooming.  It’s certainly easier to see the world filled with God’s love in the spring, than when everything is cold and gray.

In the blessing before the Shema that we recite in the morning we say ahava raba ahavtanu, with an abundant love you (God) have loved us.   In the blessing before the Shema that we recite in the evening we say ahavat olam beit Yisrael amcha ahavta, You (God) have loved the house of Israel with an eternal love.

God’s love for you is unconditional and it is eternal.  But that doesn’t mean you don’t have to follow God’s rules.  Parental love is also unconditional and eternal but we know we have to set limits for children, that they need rules in order to be able to thrive.  The Torah tells us “as a man chastens his son, so the Lord your God chastened you.”  The Talmud takes this idea even further and speaks of yisorin shel ahava, afflictions of love, that troubles befalling people can sometimes be an expression of God’s love.  Of course, even the pious rabbis in the Talmud would mostly prefer that God showed His affection in a different way!

To go back to our question of why is today called Shabbat Hagadol, I said that if Israel would observe the two sides of our relationship with God of awe/fear and love on two Shabbatot, we would be immediately redeemed and brought into a world of peace and harmony.  But why not call Shabbat Shuva, the Shabbat before Yom Kippur, “Shabbat Hagadol?”  Isn’t the yirah, the awe/fear just as great as the love?

As important as yirah is, ahava, love, is greater.  There are many sources which talk of the importance of yirat shamayim, awe of God.  And yet awe of God is but a steppingstone to the real goal – love of God.

The Torah commands us to love God, it does not command us to be afraid of God.  But how can we fulfill the commandment to love God, if we are not certain that God loves us too?

That’s what makes Shabbat Hagadol and Passover such a special time.  As the Mei Shloach, a Chasidic rabbi taught, Passover is a time when the love of the Blessed God opens up for Israel.  In Proverbs King Solomon taught that God says “I love those that love Me.”   Passover is a time when we remember the loving way God treated our ancestors and it’s also a time when we show God that we love Him.

We all know that the Passover story includes our ancestors putting blood on the doorposts of their homes, so that God would “pass over” their houses and not strike the firstborns living within.

But did God need this sign?  Doesn’t God know everything?  God knew where the Jews lived.  God certainly didn’t need a bloody door to know how to find the Jews.  So there must have been a different purpose for the commandment to put blood on the door posts of the houses.

The blood on the door posts of the houses was to be a statement of faith – a statement of love for God.  Even when God asks the people to do something pretty crazy – splashing blood on the door posts of their houses – the Israelites were willing to do it.

By coming together on Monday night at our seders we are doing the same thing.  Well, we’re not literally splashing blood on our doorposts – at least not at my house – but we’re fulfilling an ancient commandment, and we’re telling a story that’s designed to remind us of God’s love for us.  And by fulfilling this mitzvah of having a seder – a mitzvah that statistics tell us 93% of all Jews in America take part in — we’re telling God “Hey God, we love you too!”

May Passover be a time filled with love—love for your friends and family, love for God, and love for all of mankind.  We tell the story of Passover with its reminders of days of oppression and slavery partly so that will remember to be compassionate.  The Torah tells us over and over to be kind to the stranger – show love to the stranger – for you were strangers in the land of Egypt and know what it’s like to be down.

Today, Shabbat Hagadol, is the day we draw down the blessings and love of Passover.  May the prophet Elijah visit your Seder and herald the era of love and prosperity,

Amen.  And remember – God Loves You!

Reb Barry

Barry Leff

Rabbi Barry (Baruch) Leff is a dual Israeli-American business executive, teacher, speaker and writer who divides his time between Israel and the US.

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