Dress for the Part

The Shabbat that precedes the holy days of Pesach is called Shabbat Hagadol — the Great Shabbat. Our Sages teach that it was on this day — Shabbat, the 10th of Nisan in 2448 — that the Jewish people fulfilled the command of Hashem and dragged the idol of the Egyptians, a sheep, and tied it to their bedposts. When asked by the angry Egyptians, “What are you doing with that lamb?” the Jews replied, “I am going to slaughter it and eat it.” The Egyptians, although infuriated, could do nothing. This miraculous sequence of events is commemorated annually as Shabbat Hagadol.

The commentators explain that the plagues in Egypt served not only as a punishment to the slave drivers but also taught the Jews a valuable set of principles.

Hashem’s purpose was threefold. “And Egypt shall know I am Hashem,” was the lesson aimed at the enemy. The King, Pharaoh, had to be taught “there is none like Hashem,” and also “that I am Hashem in the midst of the land.” When weighing these factors it seems that G-d was much more interested in teaching the Egyptians and their king the principles of faith than in imbuing our forefathers with the basics of Judaism.

Is that true?

In the 19th century the Jewish people were plagued with the modern thoughts of Europeans. The “enlightened”Jews questioned the validity of mitzvah observance for modern times. A Rabbi was challenged by one of these maskilim and the Rabbi responded with a famous story about the mythical people of Chelm — who were known for their naïveté.

The village of Chelm was growing and the townspeople decided an expansion project was necessary to accommodate the growth. They were confronted, however, with a logistics problem. The outskirts of the village were bordered by a large mountain, which made the plans impractical. They called a town meeting and one of the brighter citizens suggested, “We should pool our energies. All of the men of our town should go out and push the mountain further south so that we will not be inhibited by this obstacle.” The approval of the city council was speedy and unanimous. Early the next morning, the people assembled at the foot of the mountain for the mighty task.

After a few hours of joint effort, the community-minded strongmen were sweating in the noonday sun. They removed their jackets, and then their shirts, and piled them up several yards away from the mountain. While the dedicated citizens grunted and groaned and pushed, a band of robbers made off with the Chelmites’ clothing.

At sunset, as the workers quit for
the day, the mayor encouraged them. “Gentleman,” he declared,“you’ve made great progress today. Look — you’ve moved the mountain so much that we can no longer see our clothing.”

The Rabbi concluded, “My friend, the same holds true for you. Mount Sinai stands eternal; even you and a million like you cannot push it away. But you have let the ‘clothing of Judaism’ — your dignity and your pride in mitzvah observance, your label as G-d’s child — you have let your clothing be stolen. Now that it is missing, you claim to have made progress!”

In a world of non-Jews,many Jews suffer from an inferiority complex. The Jew looks outside his or her faith for the “idols” of the gentiles, feeling that what they have is what we need. In Egypt it was the idol worship of the host country, and so it was, too, when they arrived in the Land of Canaan. The Jews never invented an idol of their own. Today, it is the dress, entertainment and culinary styles of the gentile that attract our fancy.

After the ninth plague, the Torah declares: “And the man Moshe was very great… in the eyes of Pharaoh’s servants and in the eyes of the people.” Which people? The Jews! The people had been belittling Moshe’s efforts to redeem them and even chastising him for making things worse rather than better. But now — after nine miraculous plagues and after the servants of Pharaoh began to praise him — the Jews also began to respect his efforts.

The plagues were meant to be not only a punishment for the wicked slave drivers but also to be a lesson for their victims. We had been slaves for so long that our national psyche suffered from a slave mentality. Hashem’s ideology was:“I will show the Egyptians that I am Hashem and then the Jews will learn the lesson as well!”

Pesach is a time to remember and teach our children the simple truth that the Egyptians knew so well. We are a special people. We were chosen by G-d Himself to be treated as His first-born child. Psychologists and philosophers explain prejudicial treatment called anti-Semitism as a reaction by the gentile to the fact that he knows we are special but cannot understand or explain it. The media, the United Nations and the courts treat the Jew differently because the world knows there is something special about our people without knowing what it is.

Hashem performed the miracles and wonders of the Exodus to teach US this lesson. He wanted US to learn that WE are special and that WE have a unique job to perform.

As we sit like kings at the Seder table, may we all imbue our children with pride in what we represent and in our special function for the benefit of mankind.

Shabbat shalom.

Chag samei’ach.


Rabbi Raymond Beyda serves in the Sephardic Community in Brooklyn, N.Y. He lectures to audiences all over the world. He has distributed over 500,000 recorded lessons free of charge. He is author of the book 1 Minute with Yourself: A Minute a Day to Self-Improvement, Sephardic Press, 2008.