Why Should You Attend a Shabbos Ha'Gadol Derasha?

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Every year, on the first two nights of Pesach, I look out in Shul and have the same thought: This is not what the Rabbis meant when they instructed us to re-live the Exodus.   Halacha dictates that Kiddush at the Seder cannot begin until after nightfall, leaving a significant gap in between the conclusion of Mincha and the start of Ma’ariv.  In most Shuls, the time is designated for a short shiur on a contemporary topic or insights into the Hagaddah.


As a child, I was always taught, it is one thing to not actively go to a shiur, but it is an altogether different thing to get up and choose to walk out of one.  Those words ring in my ears as we conclude Mincha on Pesach night and I observe those re-living the Exodus through the back door.  Many concede the opportunity to hear Divrei Torah, choosing instead to stand in the lobby and shoot the breeze, share the latest gossip, or simply pass the time.  Others, however, make an exit for what they consider a noble reason.  They are heading to the Beis Midrash for “real” learning.


This phenomenon is not unique to Pesach night.  Go into any Shul on any evening and you will see that when the Rabbi gets up to share Divrei Torah in between Mincha and Ma’ariv there are people who walk out.  Some will be davening at a later Ma’ariv minyan and see no reason to remain for the Dvar Torah before leaving.  Others go to the Beis Midrash for a few minutes of “serious” learning.  Yet others remain in the Shul and brazenly open a sefer to study, oblivious to the impression it leaves and the message it sends.


Rav Yitzchak Zilberstein, in his fantastic sefer Chashukei Chemed, records the following question he received: “On Shabbos Shuva and Shabbos HaGadol the Rabbis stand up and deliver sermons before their Congregations.  Asked a Torah scholar – What should I do if I feel it would be much more productive to remain in the Beis Midrash and continue my independent study rather than attend the Derasha?  Is it appropriate for me to do so?


Rav Zilberstein is himself an outstanding Talmud Chacham and Posek.  He serves as the Av Beis Din of the Ramat Elchanan neighborhood of Bnei Brak, the Rosh Kollel of Kollel Bais David in Cholon, and the Posek of Mayanei HaYeshua Hospital in Bnei Brak.  He has authored many seforim and addresses inquiries in Halacha from around the world.  One might have anticipated that he would encourage the questioner to pursue the highest level and most productive form of Torah study and therefore to remain diligent in his personal learning rather than attend the Shiur designed for a popular audience.


Instead, however, he writes as follows: “The value of communal Torah study is tremendous, as the Gemara (Berachos 6a) says learning Torah in a group of ten or more is similar to Tefillah B’Tzibbur, communal prayer, and God Himself comes to join… We see from here that even if the quality of one’s learning will be better alone, the value of communal learning takes precedence and supersedes.  Therefore, one should stop his learning and attend the derasha.”


It is sad and admittedly shamelessly self-serving that I, a pulpit Rabbi, feel compelled to share this insight.  However, I fear that unfortunately the Rebbeim and Roshei Yeshiva who should be emphasizing this message, in most cases, are not.  One great Rosh Yeshiva who did was R’ Moshe Feinstein zt”l.


Rav Zilberstein continues his teshuva by telling the following story:


“A student approached Rav Moshe on the eve of Bein Ha’Zemanim, intercession, and asked, ‘What hanhaga tova, what virtuous practice should I accept upon myself during this upcoming yeshiva break?’  Rav Moshe responded, ‘There is a Shul in your community which undoubtedly has a short shiur between Mincha and Ma’ariv each day for the Ba’al Ha’Batim.  As a yeshiva student, you have likely completed many tractates of Shas and see yourself as superior in learning to the intended audience of the shiur.   You will prefer to step out and take a Gemara from the shelf and learn privately.  Know,’ said Rav Moshe, ‘that to do so would be egregious and a horrendous example.  When the community members see you, a Yeshiva student, take out a Gemara and learn on the side, they will conclude that the shiur is unimportant and they will step outside for frivolous conversation.”


Whenever Rabbi Rabinovici is in town, I notice that even though he davens at the late Ma’ariv, he remains after Mincha to hear the Dvar Halacha and only walks out afterwards.  To be clear, he has forgotten more Torah than I will ever know in my lifetime.  He is not only familiar with whatever the Dvar Halacha is that day, he is familiar with more nuances and sources on the topic than me or whoever is presenting that day.  Yet he remains and listens attentively and in so doing teaches a greater lesson with his example than he could with his words.


Rav Zilberstein’s wonderful insight, that Torah study is like prayer and it takes on a greater significance and value when done in a community rather than alone, transforms the Shabbos HaGadol Derasha from a regular shiur to a community experience.  Historically, community Rabbis only gave full-length sermons twice a year, on Shabbos Shuva and Shabbos HaGadol.  The modern practice of having a sermon every week is a relatively recent innovation having been introduced in England and the United States in the late 19th, and early 20th centuries.


Though some may long for the practice of old, the sermon looks to be a fixture on a weekly basis in most Shuls.  Nevertheless, there remains something categorically different about Shabbos Shuva and Shabbos Ha’gadol.  The custom is for the Rabbi to wear his Tallis when delivering these two talks and to choose topics that are specifically relevant and important for his particular community and its spiritual needs.


Whatever your personal practice regarding attending classes and shiurim throughout the year or if you learn on your own or with a chavrusa, I invite you to join us for the Shabbos HaGadol Derasha this Shabbos and to be a part of our communal learning experience.  Presenting to an incredibly diverse representation of all of our minyanim and segments of our community is both challenging and incredibly invigorating, and something I consider among the greatest highlights of my year.


This Shabbos, we will study a fascinating and difficult subject.  Each year we sit at the Seder table and read the section of the four sons including the rasha, the wicked son.  To whom exactly do we address those words?  Who is this evil child and if he or she is evil, why are they at the seder?  I found researching these questions incredibly thought--provoking and rewarding.


Together, we will examine the following:



  • Are there evil people or just people who do evil?  Are they truly evil or just sick?  How should we relate to them?

  • The Torah records four children who ask questions.  How did our Rabbis know which question belonged to which archetype of child?

  • Could the Rasha possibly be the heretical child who doubts the tenets of Judaism?  If so, why is that evil?

  • How are we to relate to those who walk away from Judaism going as far as intermarrying or just giving up an observant lifestyle?

  • How do we relate to disbelievers?

  • What is the impact of a pluralistic society on moral authority?  Can one believe in Universalism and Particularity simultaneously?

  • Lastly, do we ourselves identify with the Rasha?  Does his question about the minutiae and details of the law resonate with us?

  • Are we essentially Socially Orthodox?


    I have prepared a thorough source booklet containing insights, commentaries, responsa, and excerpts of articles.  I hope that you will peruse it before the derasha, http://rabbi.brsonline.org/ShabbosHagadolDerasha2014.pdf or take it home with you to look at in order to more carefully follow it.  The goal of the source book is not to impress or intimidate, but to invite further study and reflection.  In addition, for the first time, at the derasha you will receive a one page outline. For those who feel the sources are too much, feel free to follow using only the outline.


    Thank you for being part of Talmud Torah B’Tzibbur, a community of people looking to learn and grow together.