Weekly Torah Commentary – Acharei Mot April 15, 2011

This Shabbat which immediately precedes the beginning of Pesach/Passover is called “Shabbat HaGadol” – the Great Shabbat.   How is it that this – of all the Sabbaths throughout the year – is the one chosen to be called “Great”?

In the 12th chapter of Shemot/Exodus we read that just prior to the Exodus Moshe instructed the children of Israel to choose a lamb for each household on the 10th of Nissan.  The lamb was to be inspected during the subsequent days until the 14th of Nissan when it was to be slaughtered and eaten in the evening after sundown which according to the Hebrew calendar was the 15th of Nissan for the Hebrew day begins at sundown.

We know historically that the children of Israel left Egypt on a Thursday so the lambs were slaughtered on Wednesday, the 14th.  Therefore they were chosen on the previous Saturday — Shabbat — the 10th of Nissan.

Shabbat existed from creation — “and God rested on the seventh day…” but Shabbat was not mandated to the children of Israel until the Torah was given at Sinai.  Therefore, while Israel was enslaved in Egypt, they had not yet been commanded to keep Shabbat.

THIS Shabbat, however, was the turning point.  On the 10th of Nissan, in the year of the Exodus, for the very first time, Israel as a nation joined God in keeping Shabbat.  The Sages explain:  the lamb was a sacred animal to the Egyptians; it was one of their many ‘gods’, comparable to the sacred cows today in India.  For the enslaved Hebrews to take lambs from the Egyptians and slaughter them was the acid test of their faith in ONE God and in His servant, Moshe.  By implementing this decree, the children of Israel rejected the idolatry with which they had been surrounded for more than 200 years and demonstrated their faith in Hashem by obeying a difficult and dangerous commandment.

This act of obedience is a pivotal point in Israel’s history.  It was the preparatory step towards Sinai, towards the majestic deliverance they were about to experience — a deliverance which was not an end in itself, but the means through which they would be led to the place where they would experience history’s greatest event – the giving of the Torah by God Himself to the congregation of Israel at Mt. Sinai.

This was indeed the GREAT Shabbat!

It is also noteworthy that the Egyptians made no protest to the Hebrew slaves taking the lambs.  They knew what was going to happen but after the previous nine plagues which they had experienced, the Egyptian people were afraid of the Hebrews.  The “enslavers” had themselves become enslaved by fear of the God of the Hebrews.

On this Shabbat HaGadol we read the Torah portion, Acharei Mot which which we find this instruction: “And you shall guard My observances…” 18:30.  It is from this verse and another similar one that the Sages derived the principle of developing what are called “fences” for the Torah — rabbinical decrees whose purposes are to protect us from transgressing the Torah, particularly in areas of personal vulnerability.

The concept is well known to us.  We put fences around swimming pools lest, G-d forbid, a child should fall in and accidentally drown.  Fences are erected along narrow mountain roads lest, G-d forbid, an automobile should accidentally get to close to the edge and plunge over a cliff.  The Torah instructs us elsewhere that if we build a house with a flat roof, we must put a fence around the roof lest someone accidentally fall off.

“Fences” around the Torah are designed to emphasize to us the seriousness of transgressing Hashem’s instructions.  They serve to help us, to protect us from our own weaknesses. Not every ‘fence’ is equally meaningful to every Jew for we are all different, with different strengths and weaknesses.  What we need to understand is that every fence is significant and important to someone.  Individually we are to be humbly thankful for those fences which help us individually to keep Hashem’s Torah.

Take for example the well known practice of the lighting of two candles on Friday evening by the woman of the home to welcome Shabbat.  You will not find that practice specifically mandated in the written Torah.  However, it is a decree that serves a uniquely important function.  Lighting two Shabbat candles on Friday evening expresses our commitment to obey the explicit command of the Torah to “observe” and “safeguard” the seventh day as a day set apart for Hashem.  That moment is the cut off point between the six days of the week and the special day of Shabbat.  Lighting Shabbat candles is, if you will, a ‘fence’ designed to call us back to focusing on Hashem in a devoted way after the demanding schedule of a busy week with its duties, preoccupations and distractions.  For the Jewish woman in particular, it is one of the most beautiful of fences.

In Tune with Torah this week = examining our own hearts this Shabbat to ensure that no trace of ‘slavery’ to any thing still lurks within our souls and to humbly acknowledge that we need reminders, safeguards, protections (fences) for our own good as we seek to follow Hashem with all our heart and soul.

Shabbat Shalom and Chag Pesach Sameach v’Kasher – may you have a joyful and kosher Passover!

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