Never Too Late

As I began to write this week, it is in the hours when Jews around the world are preparing for Shavuot – one of our three main festivals, which marks a moment in our history extending through time.  It is the time for us to virtually stand [once again] around the foot of Mt. Sinai, recalling the experience of the Israelite people receiving the Torah in the wilderness.  This is a fascinating approach to so many of our holidays: beyond merely recalling history, we are meant to step back in time to be present in the past as if we were there. However, we are not to live in the past, but rather to draw that experience back into our present lives.  Talk about standing in many worlds and in many times!

To make it more confusing, here in this week’s Torah portion is a passage about the second Passover – Pesach Sheini.   Initially, a year after the Exodus, God instructed the people of Israel to bring the Passover offering on the afternoon of the fourteenth of Nisan [the first month], and to eat it that evening, roasted over the fire, together with matzah and bitter herbs, as they had done the previous year just before they left Egypt. “There were, however, certain persons who had become ritually impure through contact with a dead body, and could not, therefore, prepare the Passover offering on that day. They approached Moses and Aaron…and they said: ‘…Why should we be deprived, and not be able to present God’s offering in its time, amongst the children of Israel?’” (Numbers 9:6–7). In response to their plea, God established the 14th of Iyar [the second month] as a “Second Passover” (Pesach Sheni) for anyone who was unable to bring the offering on its appointed time in the first/designated month.

Virtually all of the mitzvot of the Torah, including those governing rare and unforeseeable circumstances, were of unilateral origin: from God to the people. This law of the Second Passover was instituted in response to the outcry of those who protested being deprived of being able to observe Pesach in its appointed time.  There is no other mitzvah in Torah that, if unable to be fulfilled, has an out-clause and the ability to fulfill it in another way. It is a remarkable notion, and embodies great foresight: like values and principles of Reform Judaism, it is with great kavanah and understanding of the mitzvah that there becomes latitude granted in the fulfillment of the mitzvah.

It gets even more interesting. After the people complain to Moses that they might be excluded from the mitzvah of Passover, Moses waits to give them God’s response, which institutes this Pesach Sheini not only in the case of a person who been “contaminated by death” but adds this alternative observance for someone who is “on a distant journey, whether among you or in future generations” (Numbers 9:10).  In this response, God now grants that anyone who couldn’t do what they had to do because they were touched by death or out of range of the community could have a second go at it every year, one month after Passover, for one day only. Thus, the Pesach Sheinu, the second Passover represents the power of teshuvah — the power of repentance and return; more than just turning a new leaf and achieving forgiveness for past sins, it is the power to go back in time and redefine the past.

The Torah, wishing to include all Israelites in the significant ritual of Pesach, demonstrates here the need to assess circumstances in the application of law and, sometimes, to give us humans a second chance. Here, weighing the exclusion of Israelites from a “perfect” ritual against the accommodation of less-than-ideal circumstances by adapting the ritual in a somewhat inelegant manner (commemorating the Exodus on a day other than its actual anniversary) Torah advocates for adaptation. In other words, in this second Pesach account, we see preference for the acceptance and understanding of human reality over and above the perfect and pristine performance of ritual duties. Here, God is compassionate and understanding. And as we are all made in the image of God—a compassionate God crafting divine rituals around the realities of human life and ensuring the inclusion of all – that is certainly the image we should try to emulate.

[Beha’alot’cha 2014]

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