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The Shabbat before Passover is referred to as Shabbat HaGadol, or The Great Shabbat, a term that originates in the Middle Ages. Though it’s not clear exactly why Shabbat HaGadol was given this name, some see it as a reference to a verse at the end of the haftarah for this Shabbat, which has to do with a day in the future that will be "gadol" or awesome: "Lo, I will send the prophet Elijah to you before the coming of the awesome, fearful day of the Lord." (3:23)
Malakhi, the prophet from whom read on Shabbat HaGadol, was the last of the 12 minor prophets. Malakhi means "messenger of God," so numerous commentators and biblical critics have argued that Malakhi was not in fact the name of the prophet but rather his title. Malakhi has been identified with Mordecai, Ezra, and Zekhariah by various sources throughout Jewish history.
Whatever Malakhi’s real identity, his message in this haftarah is clear. The people have been committing a variety of egregious sins, including practicing sorcery, committing adultery, lying, cheating laborers, abandoning the tithe and contribution to the Levites, and treating widows, orphans, and strangers poorly. Malakhi imagines the people standing back-to-back with God, wondering how they could ever face God again. God reminds them that if they turn back toward Him, He will turn back toward them, giving them bountiful rewards (3:7).
Reward and Punishment
Malakhi notices that the people have become skeptical of the concept of divine reward and punishment. They have seen that behaving poorly can still lead to achieving wealth and prosperity, and so they longer fear retribution. However, Malakhi adamantly points out that a day will come when God will mete out appropriate punishments and rewards for everyone.
That day is described with language of heat and fire, as Malakhi portrays those who are evil being consumed: "For lo! That day is at hand, burning like an oven. All the arrogant and all the doers of evil shall be straw" (3:19). Meanwhile, those people who have been doing good will be healed, and will have all they need, "like stall-fed calves" (3:20).
The haftarah closes with a reference to the prophet Elijah who will be coming to herald the redemption in the time to come. Malakhi portrays the redemption as imminent, thus giving the people a strong incentive to repent and serve God. This parallels the redemption that we recall during Passover. Just as the people of Israel were redeemed from Egypt after generations of slavery, so too will the people be redeemed with the coming of the messiah in the time to come.
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