School principal Chaim Kaplan recorded the bleak mood in the Warsaw Ghetto on the eve of Passover of the Hebrew year 5701 (1941):
Like the Egyptian Passover, the Passover of Germany will be celebrated for generations. The chaotic oppression of every day throughout this year of suffering will be reflected in the days of the coming holiday. Last year the Joint’s project was functioning full force. It was not conducted properly and many people criticized it, but in the last analysis it fed the hungry and brought the holiday into every Jewish home. We lacked for nothing then.
This year everything is changed for the worse, and we are all faced with a Passover of hunger and poverty, without even the bread of poverty….What, then, will we eat during the eight days of the coming holiday? I am afraid we will turn our holiday into a weekday. For prayer there are no synagogues or houses of study. Their doors are closed and darkness reigns in the dwelling places of Israel. For eating and drinking there is neither matzoth nor wine.
The Rebbe spoke to his Hasidim on the Sabbath preceding the holiday, known in Jewish tradition as “Shabat ha-Gadol”–The Great Sabbath. He began by asking an obvious question that must have resonated with his audience: what is so “great” about this Sabbath? His introductory remarks focussed on a Talmudic dispute (Yoma 69b) on the meaning of the word “great” as it relates to God. Rabbi Yohanan in the name of Rav argues that “greatness” is intrinsic to God’s ineffable Name, while Rabban Gamliel says God’s greatness is related to the blessing of the Jewish people. Both opinions, argued the Rebbe, are strangely dependent on the Jewish people, either through the High Priest pronouncing the Tetragrammaton in the Temple, or through the Jewish people as a whole blessing God.
The Blessed One is called “great” because the Jewish people call Him great. The Talmud asks, what is this “greatness”? On the surface, it is difficult to understand this question. Isn’t God, after all, truly great? The question arises because it is inappropriate to ascribe the term “great” to an isolated individual, since the adjective “great” can only apply in relation to something else which is not as great. For example, if one were to find a grape the size of a small apple, it would be called a “great grape,” even though the apple is a small one. Nevertheless, this grape is called “great” because it is great in relation to other grapes. How, then, is it possible to say this regarding God, who is radically unique? The Talmud responds that this is so because the Jewish people magnify God’s honor and majesty in the world beyond what it had been. God’s honor and holiness becomes “great” in comparison to what it once was.
This clarifies the dispute between Rabbi Yohanan in the name of Rav and Rabban Gamliel–dispute over God’s greatness was not limited to a discussion of the Name of God versus the blessing of the Jewish people. Rather, the debate was regarding whether the greatness was most realized through the High Priest’s utterance of God’s name on Yom Kippur, or whether it was manifested through the response of the assembled people with the verse, “Blessed is Hashem, God of the Jewish people, from this world to the next” (Psalms 41:14). Both the High Priest and the Jewish people pronounced the Tetragrammaton, and both blessed God–which of the two statements made God “greater” than before?
This is the sense of the dispute between Rav and Rabban Gamliel. Rav contends that God is made great through the Tetragrammaton, whereas Rabban Gamliel states that God was not exclusively made great by the tremendous revelation in the Temple effected by the great righteous ones (for the ineffable Name was only uttered in the Temple). Rather, God is also made “great” through the expression of the verse, Blessed is Hashem, God of The Jewish people, from this world to the next, even though this involved a repetition of the Tetragrammaton, and they did not approach the spiritual loftiness of the Kohen in the Temple. Nevertheless, since they saidBlessed is Hashem, God of The Jewish people, and thereby accepted the God of the Jewish people upon themselves and upon the Jewish people to a greater extent than earlier, in this fashion the Blessed One is called “great.” When an individual Jew, even the lowliest, accepts the yoke of the Kingdom of Heaven, and sanctifies one’s self with holiness and Divine worship to a greater extent than before–that is when the Blessed One truly becomes “great.”
The Rebbe discussed briefly some of the Kabbalistic elements in this concept of making God “great,” and then returned to the topic at hand: the Great Sabbath:
Consequently, when the Jews were in Egypt and did not perform commandments, they did not perceive the higher Light. On this Sabbath, however, which was the tenth of the month, and they took for themselves a lamb for the Passover offering, they already began to desire this higher Light, and thereby it became the vehicle to make them greater and caused God’s Name to be called “great.” It is for this reason that this Sabbath is referred to as “The Great Sabbath.”
In other words, this Sabbath was called “great” because it represented an elevation of human spiritual sensitivity, which in turn made the recognition of God’s presence more apparent in the world, thus making God also “greater” than before.
Ever-conscious of the pressing material needs of his congregation in the Warsaw Ghetto, the Rebbe concluded with a reflection on the concept of redemption from Egypt, a message of encouragement for his faithful Hasidim:
Perhaps this also sheds Light on the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart, for the verse states, in order that you will relate in the ears of your son…and you will known that I am God. That is to say, the Jewish people will see the greatness of God and will believe in the Blessed One. In simple terms, why was it necessary for them to remain in Egypt to perceive this? God could have taken them out immediately, and afterwards showed them other signs and wonders! Even without Pharaoh, God could have shown them something of divine greatness.
In light of what we have said, however, it was necessary that the Jewish people experience yearning [for holiness]. This is human nature. When a person finds himself on a lowly physical and spiritual level, tormented, Heaven forbid, it is easier for him to arouse in himself a yearning for God. Therefore it was specifically in Egyptian exile that God showed them the signs, in order to relate to them and increase their faith in God and yearning for the Blessed One, and thereby draw down more Light.
Thus, on the Great Sabbath we begin to recite we were slaves…and Hashem our God took us out of there with a strong hand and an outstretched arm, that God did not withhold showing us the strong hand and outstretched arm until after our exodus from the land of Egypt, but instead He…took us out…with a strong hand and an outstretched arm, meaning that while yet in Egypt God showed this to us. Therefore, “the more one expounds on the Exodus from Egypt, the more praiseworthy,” for the essence of this is to increase Light and holiness for us, and in so doing, to similarly affect the upper world as we have discussed. This is the meaning of “the Great Sabbath.”