Sunday, May 23, 2010

Change and Second Chances / B'haalotekha

The autumn is packed with holy days: Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot, Shemini Atzeret, Simchat Torah. By the time they have passed, many of us are on holiday overload.

There is a midrash attributed to R. Levi that tells us that God originally intended every month of the Jewish year to feature a festival for celebration. But the incident of the Golden Calf caused God to revoke the festivals planned for the summer months of Tammuz, Av, and Elul. To compensate, Tishrei has two extra holy occasions. The third compensating festival was assigned to Iyyar and it is Pesach Sheni, which we read about in Numbers chapter 9 in this week’s parashah.

Pesach Sheni means “a second Passover” and it comes one month after Pesach. Pesach differs from other biblical festivals, where the “main event” was communal sacrifices. On Pesach, individuals bring sacrifices and share them with their families and friends. The one who brought a lamb to be sacrificed needed to be in a state of ritual purity (taharah). Anyone who had had contact with the dead (for example, by being present in the room when someone died, or by attending to a burial) and had not had time to undergo a purification ritual, could not bring, or eat, the pesach offering. Those who were far from home when Pesach came, and could not return to offer the pesach lamb, were also included among those who needed a “second chance.”
In this weeks’ parashah, the ritual of Pesach is delineated:
The Lord spoke to Moses in the wilderness of Sinai, on the first new moon of the second year following the exodus from the land of Egypt, saying: Let the Israelite people offer the Passover sacrifice at its set time: you shall offer it on the fourteenth day of this month, at twilight, at its set time; you shall offer it accordance with all its rules and rites… (Numbers 9:1-3)
Then we are told that those who could not participate raised an objection to Moses:
But there were some men who were unclean by reason of a corpse and could not offer the Passover sacrifice on that day. Appearing that same day before Moses and Aaron, those men said to hem, “Unclean though we are by reason of a corpse, why must we be debarred from presenting the Lord’s offering at its set time with the rest of the Israelites?” Moses said to them, “Stand by, and let me hear what instructions the Lord gives about you.” (Numbers 9:6-8)
Moses brings their concern to God, seeking a remedy:
And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to the Israelite people, saying: When any of you or of your posterity who are defiled by a corpse or are on a long journey would offer a passover sacrifice to the Lord, they shall offer it in the second month on the fourteenth day of the month, at twilight. They shall eat it with unleavened bread and bitter herbs, and they shall not leave any of it over until morning. They shall not break a bone of it. They shall offer it in strict accord with the law of the Passover sacrifice. (Numbers 9:9-12)
B’haalotekha tells us that those who, on the 14th of Nisan following the Exodus were tamei by reason of contact with a corpse or who were far from the Temple, are to be given a second chance one month later.

Today we are not concerned with tum’ah (ritual impurity) from a corpse because everyone is a state of tum’ah and we no longer offer the pesach lamb. Therefore, Pesach Sheni has no practical import – though there are some who make a practice of eating a bit of matzah 30 days after Pesach. Yet there is one observation concerning the nature of Jewish law, and one message I’d like to share with you that derive from Pesach Sheni.

The observation: this is not the only case in which ordinary people question a law, and after Moses appeals to God, the law is changed. The daughters of Tzelophehad question the justice of the laws of inheritance. Upon appeal, God changes the law (Numbers 27:1-11 and 36:1-12). Pesach Sheni and the case of the daughters of Tzelophehad strongly suggest that Jewish law must be flexible in responding to the exigencies of life, responsive to individual and communal need, which changes with time, and responsive to our evolving understanding of justice, compassion, and ethics.

The underlying message of Pesach Sheni – that we have a second chance – is crucial to hear and internalize. So many lives are lived under a cloud of perceived opportunities missed, dreams unrealized, failures that cannot be redeemed. But that is not the case. It’s never too late to forgive someone else, never too late for forgive ourselves. It’s never too late to study Torah or embrace religious traditions. It’s never too late to learn a new skill or pursue a dream. Food for thought this Shabbat.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

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