The Exodus took place on a Thursday, the Talmud states; therefore, the ritual preparation of the Paschal sacrifice must have been on a Wednesday with the acquisition of the animals coming on the preceding Shabbos.
The handling of these lambs for sacrifice was an abomination to the eyes of the Egyptians, who deified the creatures. Nevertheless, the preparation of the offerings proceeded without incident, yet another miracle on par with the series of plagues that had befallen Egypt over the previous several months. Thus the name: Shabbos Hagadol, The Great Shabbos.
Tosafos, however, tells a different story behind the name. Upon learning that they were going to be the target of the final plague, the firstborn Egyptians pleaded with their parents and with Pharaoh to acquiesce to Moses's demands and release the Jewish nation.
But when it became evident to them that the Egyptian ruling class was not going to be sympathetic to their fate, the firstborn rose up violently and many people were killed, marking Shabbos Hagadol as the beginning of the final plague, makas bechoros.
Hashem manipulated the minds of the Egyptians to generously give their possessions to the Jews just before the Exodus. Yet, in making the decision to give the Jews their freedom, only Pharaoh's mind, according to the literal text, was controlled by G-d. While the Torah repeatedly states that G-d prevented Pharaoh from allowing the Jews to leave during the final series of plagues, no such "hardening of the heart" occurred to the parents of the firstborn. That they, too, would turn a deaf ear to the pleas of their children is a remarkable notion.
While certain individuals did seem to communicate their consternation to Pha-raoh, the average Egyptian felt helpless in trying to dissuade him from the self-destructive course he had set for the nation.
History shows us that, at times, people get caught up in a series of events from which they simply do not believe they can extricate themselves, and they allow themselves to be carried along even when it is clear that the the result will be tragic and devastating.
In this sense, it is striking that Shabbos Hagadol this year should coincide with the reading of Parshas Metzora. Rambam understands the effects of tzoraas on one's body, one's home, and one's possessions to be designed by Hashem in order to get a person's attention, to snap him out of the reverie that causes people to slide down the slippery slope of iniquity without even realizing it. This recognition should lead us to view tzoraas as a Divine chessed, rather than a series of punishments and medical afflictions.
Let us reflect upon the meanings of both Shabbos Hagadol and Parshas Metzora and think about how we should live our lives as ovdei Hashem.
Rabbi Jack Bieler
Rabbi Bieler is Rabbi of the Kemp Mill Synagogue, Silver Spring, Maryland.
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