“Behold, I will send to you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the awesome and fearful day of the Lord. He will turn the parent’s heart upon the children and the heart of the children upon the parents…” (Malachi 3:23-24)
The Shabbat before Passover, Shabbat HaGadol, offers the opportunity to focus our energies on the liberation we are about to celebrate. At home, we may have spent the last weeks preparing for seders, booking cross-country flights, packing up hametz, sweeping the floors, and searching for recipes. At work, as Hillel professionals, we may have spent the last weeks (and more) cleaning our buildings, reserving rooms for seders, advertising programs to our students, and crafting strategies for an engaging Pesach. We’ve been doing the physical work necessary to prepare our homes, our offices, and our campuses for this celebration. However, in the midst of all that work, especially when we feel that so many students are counting on us, it is easy to lose site of Pesach’s message. Enter: Shabbat HaGadol—our chance to remember why it is we’ve been doing all this work.
The haftorah read on Shabbat HaGadol (Malachi 3:4-24) comes in the period after the rebuilding of the Temple (516-15 BCE). The people have lost their faith in God’s existence and in God’s justice. The prophet instructs them in God’s name: “For I am the Lord- I have not changed; and you are the children of Jacob- you have not ceased to be… Turn back to me and I will turn back to you.” (Malachi 3:6-7). That is to say: I know you’ve been through so much suffering, so much pain, so much disgrace. I know you’ve lost your faith. But, despite all that suffering, you’re still here… you’ve survived. So, let’s move forward. This is ultimately what Pesach is about. We all know the feelings of enslavement, of oppression, and of indignity. And yet, our people learned that hope has the power to beget freedom. On the 40th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., we are instructed that to fight for liberation we must remind ourselves to dream. God is still with us, we have survived; the power to turn and to bring change still exists.
This message of possibility is brought home further by the coming of the prophet Elijah. Freedom needs an open door. As frightening as it may be, we’ve got to open ourselves, our homes, and our hearts to that dream. Malachi tells us what redemption in the hands of Elijah will look like: the collective heart of one generation will turn towards the next and will be with reciprocity. As Hillel professionals, we witness every day how the generation of students before us often feel abandoned, unseen, and ignored by the Jewish institutions, families, and communities from which they come. A student tells us how she was made to feel less than: “a bad Jew.” A student shares that he was never invited to bring himself to Jewish tradition; it didn’t belong to him. The reconciliation of hearts from one generation to the next is no easy task. But, Malachi tells us, it can happen. We must cling to that hope.
Rabbi Michelle Missaghieh notes that the prophet speaks not of plural hearts turning, but rather a singular one. (The Women’s Haftarah Commentary, p.289) She notes that Pharaoh’s singular heart also held vast power. Perhaps there’s a connection? As we head back to our campuses, our programs, and our students, let’s remember why we’re doing this work. A single heart can become hard, and from that obstinacy ensues terrible suffering. A single heart can also turn, and from that miracle flows hope, freedom, and redemption. On Shabbat HaGadol, which is all about the belief that healing, change, and redemption are indeed possible, let us be guided by the words of Dr. King: “With this faith we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope.”
Prepared by D'ror Chankin-Gould, Senior Jewish Campus Service Corps Fellow at Columbia/Barnard Hillel.
Additional commentaries and text studies on Shabbat Hagadol at MyJewishLearning.com.