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The Courage to Say No; the Wisdom to Say Yes©

Updated: Apr 21

Shabbat HaGadol - 2024/5784


Think back to a time when you said no, and it changed your life for the better. 


That one word is easy to say sometimes and hard to say at other times. The ability to say no at the correct times in your life will decide whether you are a slave or a free person. 


The Shabbat before Passover has a special name: Shabbat HaGadol, translated as, The Great Sabbath. There are many reasons for this unique monicker, but I wanted to focus on just one. 


In the 14th-century Jewish legal code (halachik work), the Arbah Turim, the author, Rabbi Yakov ben Asher, wrote:


"The Shabbat before Pesach is called "Shabbat HaGadol" (The Great Shabbat) because a miracle occurred during the Exodus from Egypt. On the 10th [they took a sheep] as it says: "On the tenth of this month you shall take for yourselves a sheep into your homes." And the year that the Exodus took place was on a Thursday and therefore the "10th of the month" was Shabbat, and [on that Shabbat] every Jew took a sheep as a Paschal offering and tied it to their bedposts.  And the Egyptians asked them, "Why do you have a sheep tied to your bed?!?" They responded with shock because the sheep were considered sacred animals; they were Egyptian deities.  But the Israelites responded: "We have a lamb to slaughter for a Pesach offering for God." And the Egyptians were very upset that they were going to slaughter their gods, but they could not say anything due to the miracle. And thus it is called Shabbat HaGadol."



The miracle of Shabbat HaGadol was that the Israelites disobeyed the Egyptians en masse and finally stood up for themselves and their people. It doesn't seem to be such a 'great' miracle though at first glance, but, imagine this: 


You're a slave - your master has treated the lambs better than you and your ancestors for 400 years. But then, suddenly, after this guy Moses shows up with God and after the miracles of the plagues, you take this lamb that meant so much to them, the animal they could have given you so you could have wool for clothing, or meat to eat, because, although the lamb is beautiful, it is an animal, and our God teaches us that if humans are created in God's image, then we treat human beings with basic dignity, and basic dignity is to give them freedom. We don't worship people, and we don't worship animals. 

For the first time in that slave's life, when the enslaver yells and belittles them, and orders them, the enslaved person says one word: "No." That is the beginning of our freedom - the power to say no. 


When I think of the image of the defiant Jew, the image of Menachem Begin comes to mind. Menachem Begin, one of the founders of the Modern state of Israel, was its first right-wing Prime Minister in her history when his Likud party won a majority coalition in 1977.


There is a well-known story about Begin saying these words to a young Senator Joe Biden during a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on the subject of Israeli settlements in the Disputed territories. During that committee hearing, at the height of the Lebanon War, Senator Biden reportedly threatened to reduce economic aid if Israel did not immediately cease settlement activity. And it got heated—remember, Biden was 39 at the time. 


When the senator raised his voice and banged twice on the table with his fist, Begin calmly commented: "This desk is designed for writing, not for fists. Don't threaten us with slashing aid. Do you think that because the US lends us money, it is entitled to impose on us what we must do? We are grateful for the assistance we have received, but we are not to be threatened. I am a proud Jew. Three thousand years of culture are behind me, and you will not frighten me with threats."


This is the origin story of the line: "I'm not a Jew with trembling knees." he likely did not say those words to then-Senator Biden, but Senator Biden wasn't so unique - it was well known that Begin would often share the following line with foreign statesmen: "I'm a proud Jew who does not tremble with fear." This reaction came from his childhood and the family he lost in the Holocaust.


Filmmaker Jonathan Gruber, who created a documentary about Begin's life, said: "Everything was filtered through the Holocaust, through that experience of losing his family and being on the run. And so he said, 'Listen, if people are going to say that they want to do harm to Jews, they're going to do harm to Jews — believe them.'"


Now, this isn't a perfect metaphor. America and Israel were allies at the time, and are allies, but it was a moment when, because of the miracles they experienced in Egypt, and we experienced when the state of Israel was founded, we had the confidence to say 'No.' 


We must stand up for ourselves, even when it's hard, to our enemies and our friends because we know the consequences of what happens when we don't. 


One of the saddest things I had ever seen was a streamed Student Government meeting at a large state university around four years ago when a BDS resolution was brought up for a vote. Student after student gave self-aggrandizing speech after speech to cheers about the Zionist state and their crimes of genocide and colonialism. And then, a Jewish student got up, visibly trembling, picking up her phone to read her prepared remarks. She began with an apology: "I'm sorry for the privileges I live with, for being white and Jewish." I don't even remember the details of what she said after. 


I think this might be the first time in Jewish history where any Jew truly thought we were 'privileged' chosen maybe, but privileged? It isn't fair to judge her; I cannot imagine the pressure she must have felt at that moment. But I did have a thought: if you can't stand up for yourself, can you stand up for anyone else? 


The Sage Hillel taught:

“(יד) הוּא הָיָה אוֹמֵר, אִם אֵין אֲנִי לִי, מִי לִי. וּכְשֶׁאֲנִי לְעַצְמִי, מָה אֲנִי. וְאִם לֹא עַכְשָׁיו, אֵימָתַי: 

Pirkei Avot 1:14

(14) He [Rabbi Hillel] used to say: If I am not for me, who will be for me? And when I am for myself alone, what am I? And if not now, then when?


Jewish comedian Amy Schumer got into trouble for posting the following on Instagram after October 7: 


"First, they came for LGBTQ, and I stood up because love is love. Then they came for immigrants and I stood up because families belong together. Then they came for the black community and I stood up because black lives matter. Then they came for me and I stood alone because I am a Jew."


Then, the internet came after her. 


And she replied:


"As a child, I grew up with Uncle Alex; numbers from Auschwitz burned into his forearm. Attending Hebrew school reading endless books about the holocaust like all Jewish children do. Learning of the world's confusing hatred for us. Was ridiculed for being Jewish by the students and parents alike. Ashamed and scared I kept it quiet. Learned to laugh along at all the "Jew jokes" and make them myself. How Jews were greedy and rich while I had to share a bed with my mom while living in other family's tiny basements and attics because we had no money. I'm not laughing anymore or being quiet anymore. I'm proud to be descended from a population they have tried to exterminate over and over again for thousands of years."







During the Egypt-Israel peace negotiations of the mid to late 1970s, Begin was offered, on two separate occasions, disguises to wear for his secret visits to King Hassan of Morocco, who had expressed readiness to meet with Israel's prime minister. But Begin turned down the disguises: "I shall travel only as the prime minister of Israel, and not in disguise."


It is this defiance to refuse to play by the rules of the Jewish slave, to believe in the idolatry of a binary world where all people of one color are inherently evil and oppressors, and people of other skin types are always oppressed and are inherently good. Imagine someone praising Hamas to your face and then asking you if you agree and not having any idea that anyone else could think differently. 


Shabbat HaGadol teaches us that in order for redemption to come, one must begin the work of bringing it about. 


We begin to do that work by standing up for ourselves and without forgetting that we also stand up for others. Because if we only do one without the other, who and what are we really? 


Are we a light unto the nations or just another tribe looking out only for ourselves, cut off from the rest of the world and the responsibilities that come with it? 


I read another interesting fact about this day, and the ritual of the lamb: Rashi (Medieval Biblical commentator) writes that the blood was not placed on the outside of the door, but on the inside. This change of the blood, from the outside to the inside, implies two things: 


  1. The Children of Israel was staring at the lamb's blood during the Seder

  2. The Angel of Death had X-Ray vision and could see through walls 


I cannot help but imagine the enslaved Israelites staring at the blood on the night of Passover, smearing it on the inside as an act of blind faith, hoping that God will somehow see that they followed God's law. We may believe in God, even when God is silent, but also we dance with God even when no one is watching. Judaism is joyful. 


And it taught our ancestors, and us, of our own power and our responsibility to the world. In our Haftarah today, the prophet Malachi, the final prophet of the book, warns the people going to a rebuilt Temple: remember your duty to fulfill your obligations to God with your tithes for the poor, so they could have matzah on Passover, or food on any other night. The Eta Chaim Chumash teaches, "Shabbat Ha-Gadol calls attention to an ultimate or 'great' accountability that all creatures bear for the resource of the earth and the scared task of their redistribution." 


The Jewish people cannot give up on the world. 


I cannot imagine a world where Israel is not a light unto the nations, where she isn't sending field hospitals to far-off places, where she isn't trying to solve the world's problems like the climate crisis, protecting the West's known threats and unknown threats, both physical and virtual. 


Now, think back to a time when you said yes to something that changed your life for the better.


We started with the freedom to say no, but real freedom is saying yes - it is not enough to stand up against something; true freedom is standing up for something and saying yes.


Let us say yes to God, to our Jewish souls, our people world-wide, and our heritage.


Let us say yes to our role as a light unto the nations


And let us do it now, for if not now - when? 



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