The haftorah1 for Shabbat Hagadol is from the Book of Malachi, who lived at the beginning of the Second Temple era. He foretells of the time of Moshiach, and rebukes the Jewish people for putting the wicked on a pedestal, for not serving G‑d, especially for not tithing, and ends with a proclamation about the Redemption.2

When and Why We Read This Haftorah

Many communities, including Chabad, read this haftorah only when Shabbat Hagadol falls on Erev Pesach. Others read it on every Shabbat Hagadol, whether or not it falls on Erev Pesach.

We read this haftorah now because it speaks of giving tithes,3 and on Erev Pesach of the fourth and seventh years of the Sabbatical cycle, one is obligated to give whatever tithes are left in his possession.4 Another reason is that it tells about the future Redemption. Since Pesach is the holiday of Redemption and the most opportune time for the coming of Moshiach, we read about the Redemption before Passover, most appropriately the prophecy of Elijah the Prophet heralding Moshiach's coming.

Whether a community reads from the Book of Malachi when Shabbat Hagadol coincides with Erev Pesach, or on every Shabbat Hagadol, both reasons apply for why it’s read. However, one reason applies more to those who read on Erev Pesach, while the other applies more to those who read it every Shabbat Hagadol. According to those who read it only on Erev Pesach, the reason of giving tithes takes precedence; however, one can also say that Erev Pesach immediately precedes Pesach, the holiday of Redemption, and Elijah comes prior to the coming of Moshiach. According to those who read it on every Shabbat Hagadol, regardless of whether or not it falls on Erev Pesach, the reason of Moshiach and of Elijah who heralds his coming takes precedence, but one can also say that it comes before or on Erev Pesach as a reminder to tithe.

The Sweet Service

The haftorah begins, V’arvah, "The offerings of Judah and Jerusalem will be sweet to G‑d,” kimei olam, “as in the early days” and the shanim kadmoniot, “former years." The haftorah is thus called V'arvah.

"As in the early days and the former years," seems to be saying the same thing twice. Why? We have to say that they are two distinct things, and that is why the verse brings them both. What is the meaning of these two expressions? And how do they work together?

The Midrash5 gives two answers. First, "in the early days," refers to the days of Moshe, and "the former years," refers to the time of Shlomo (King Solomon). An alternative understanding is that "in the early days" refers to the days of Noach.

The Tzemach Tzedek, the third Chabad Rebbe, explains that kimei olam, which literally means “the days of the world,” refers to the world, including both the spiritual and physical realms. And shanim kadmoniot, which literally means “the years before,” refers to before or beyond the world, beyond all of existence, spiritual and physical.

The Tzemach Tzedek explains6 that this connects to Shabbat Hagadol, as it says in the Haggadah, "We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt, and G‑d took us out." "We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt," refers to the world, specifically the lowest place in the world, and the lowest predicament, being slaves in exile. "G‑d took us out" refers to the essence of G‑d, beyond existence, as we read in the Haggadah, "The King, King of kings, the Holy One, Blessed Be He, in His glory and by Himself, revealed Himself to them and redeemed them."

This gives meaning to "The offerings of Judah and Jerusalem will be sweet to G‑d, as in the early days and the former years." Judah and Jerusalem refers to the Jewish people, as all the Jewish people are called Jews (from Judah), and they are called “daughters of Jerusalem.” The offerings refer to the general idea of sacrifices, which is meant to bring us closer to G‑d. And in a more general sense, it refers to our service of G‑d through Torah and mitzvahs, which also brings us closer to Him. And even more, our daily mundane actions that are done for the sake of Heaven. These offerings reach the highest levels of G‑dliness, to the essence of G‑d beyond existence. And this is what is sweet and pleasurable to Him. The Sifri7 tells us that G‑d says, "It is a pleasure before Me, because I commanded and My will was done."

And this service has both "the early days and the former years"; it reaches beyond existence, and it affects the world by drawing G‑dliness from beyond existence into even the lowest levels of existence, this physical world. And that is our purpose as Jews, to make this world into a home for G‑d, where His essence could dwell openly in this physical world. Our service to G‑d through Torah, mitzvahs and our daily activities, done for the sake of Heaven, draws G‑dliness from shanim kadmoniot, beyond existence, into kimei olam, the world, making a home for G‑d.

And this is the meaning of, "We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt, and G‑d took us out." The essence of Hashem, beyond existence, was drawn into the lowest part of creation, Egypt, and He Himself took us out.

The Deeper Reason

There is an even deeper reason for reading this haftorah on Shabbat Hagadol. Shabbat represents the culmination of our service to G‑d all week. As the Alter Rebbe (the first Chabad Rebbe) tells us,8 that the time of prayer each day is considered the “Shabbat of the day;” that is when all of one's service to G‑d during the day ascends on High. Shabbat is the day that all the prayers of the week ascend. Accordingly, Shabbat Hagadol is the “Great” Shabbat, representing our service to G‑d at the highest level.

Why is it called Shabbat Hagadol?9 Because a great miracle happened on that day, "To smite Egypt with their firstborn." The Firstborn of Egypt went to war against Egypt on behalf of the Jewish people. This is the ultimate turn of events, when your enemy becomes your agent for change, or as the Talmud puts it,10 "from the forest itself comes the handle of the ax." This parallels the highest level of service to G‑d, when the actual darkness is turned into light, and bitterness is turned sweet.11 And that is what Shabbat Hagadol is all about.

Why is it possible for the Jewish people to draw the highest levels of G‑dliness into the lowest levels of the physical world?

The haftorah continues,12 "For I, G‑d, have not changed, and you the children of Jacob have not been destroyed."

There are several ways to understand this verse.

Some people phrase it like a question, "If I, G‑d, have not changed, then why haven't you, the children of Jacob, expired [out of ecstasy]?" In other words, you realize and sense My greatness, why haven't your souls left your bodies, yearning to be with Me?

Others read it as a statement. "Because I, G‑d, have not changed, therefore you, the children of Jacob, have not been destroyed." Since His love for us has not changed, we are still here today. Even deeper, because we are one with G‑d, and He doesn't change, we don't change either; therefore, we are here today. And where are we one with Him? In His essence beyond existence, and therefore we have the ability to draw G‑dlinessinto the lowest part of creation.

The notion of "I have not changed" is seen primarily in nature, because from the human perspective nature is often seen as the norm, regularly occurring, whereas the idea of a miracle is that which breaks nature. In truth, the greatest miracle of all is nature itself, but we don't see it that way because we are used to it. The fact that so much in nature is predictable—every day the sun rises in the east and sets in the west, we plant seeds and they grow, etc.—is where we see that G‑d doesn't change.

We have to emulate G‑d. We have to act and serve Him in a predictable way, in the Torah way. When we are consistent in the ways of Torah, "You the children of Jacob have not been destroyed.” Our consistency has kept us alive. While other nations that were bigger and stronger than us are only found in history books and museums, the tiny nation of the Jewish people are here and we are making a significant difference.

Bringing Elijah

And now we will understand why the haftorah ends with13 , "Behold I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and awesome day of the Lord, that he may turn the heart of the fathers back through the children, and the heart of the children back through their fathers..."

Through our service to G‑d, especially in the way of Shabbat Hagadol, that we turn the darkness itself into light, we will merit the "great and awesome day," the coming of Moshiach. And then we will see the connection between us and G‑d openly. “Father” refers to G‑d, beyond existence, and “children” refers to us, within existence. We will see how He will "turn the heart of the fathers back through the children," by us reaching above through our service, to the essence of G‑d, "and the heart of the children back through their fathers," by our service in drawing that great level of G‑dliness into the world, making a home for G‑d.

May we merit to see the prophecy of Malachi come true with the coming of Moshiach. May he come soon.14