The Warning of Shabbat HaGadol

Rabbi Arthur Waskow

By Rabbi Arthur Waskow, Rabbi Nathan Martin and Atara Saunders

Parshat Metzora

We are approaching Pesach, and Jewish tradition marks the approach with a special Haftarah to be chanted on the last Shabbat before the holyday begins. That Shabbat is known as Shabbat HaGadol, named after one word in the Haftarah, “the great.”

But especially in our own generation, we feel the whole Haftarah and, because of it, the whole Shabbat, is indeed “great.”

Why? Here are the last words of the Prophet Malachi, the last of the ancient Hebrew prophets. His words seem almost uncanny, spoken 2,500 years ago in language that pierces our ears and hearts with astonishing precision and profundity:

Rabbi Nathan Martin

“Here! The day is coming
That will flame like a furnace,”
Says the Infinite YHWH / Yahhhh,
The InterBreath of Life —
“When all the arrogant, all evil-doers,
root and branch,
will like straw be burnt to ashes.

“Yet for those of you who revere My Name,
Yes! My Name, Yahhhh, the Interbreath of Life!
a solar sun of justice will arise
with healing in its wings, its winds, its rays.

“Here! Before the coming
of the great [HaGadol] and awesome day
of YHWH/ the Breath of Life,
I will send you the Prophet Eli-Yah [Elijah]
[Whose name means “My God is the Breath of Life”]
to turn the hearts of elders to the youth
and the hearts of youth to elders,
lest I come and smite the earth
with utter destruction.
(Malachi 3:19-24)

We ourselves live in the day of Earth’s getting hotter and hotter, bringing on us plagues of fire, flood, famine and, in targeted neighborhoods of color and low-income, epidemics of asthma and cancer. All of us are suffering as in the days of Pharaoh, when the plagues ruined lives and livelihoods of all.

Our ancient forebears had to choose between “normal” — Pharaoh’s army, slavery with meat and pickles — or the unknown — the sea and the wilderness. They chose freedom, which always tastes of the unknown.

Today, as in Malachi’s prophetic words, Earth’s burning heat comes from the burning of fossil fuels. Those who survived in the ancient story were Yisrael (the people of Israel) who revered and wrestled with God. Today, it will be villages, cities, whole countries whose people will be brave enough, who love the breath of life enough, to swiftly turn to solar and wind energy as remedy.

Today, let us pause on Shabbat HaGadol, heed the words of the Prophet Malachi, and invite ourselves to shoulder the task of Elijah by taking active roles in the world for healing Earth, not devastating the next generation.

Perhaps we can even ask ourselves to find a support partner for climate action and share what single action we each will take to uphold the Elijah covenant to turn toward each other, young and old, to heal the Earth. The youth are already speaking out – the Jewish Youth Climate Movement, the Sunrise Movement, Extinction Rebellion. Will we, the elders, turn our hearts to them, our own grandchildren?

Were we to write a response to Malachi, it would sound like this:

“Here! we ourselves are coming
Before the terrible day
of smiting Earth —
For we ourselves shall turn the hearts
Of elders and youth to each other
So that this day of smiting
Does not fall upon us.”

Rabbi Arthur Waskow is the founder and director of The Shalom Center, Rabbi Nathan Martin is the associate rabbi of Congregation Beth Israel in Media and board chair of Pennsylvania Interfaith Power and Light and Atara Saunders is a student at Drexel University. The Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia is proud to provide diverse perspectives on Torah commentary for the Jewish Exponent. The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of the Board of Rabbis.


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