The Torah of Second Chances: Pesach Sheni

Texts and beliefs By Rabbi Daniella Kolodny 03rd Jun 2015

One month ago a Jewish holiday took place with no fanfare and almost no observance of a solemn occasion. Pesach Sheni or Second Passover took place on 3 May or 14 Iyyar.  Despite the holiday’s obscurity, Pesach Sheni is known as the holiday of second chances, a second chance at Pesach observance and a second chance in life.

The Torah records that in the second year after the exodus from Egypt, a number of men approached Moses with a new concern; having attended to burying a corpse they were now ritually impure and ineligible to eat the Pesach offering on Pesach. They could not join in the communal commemoration of the Israelites’ greatest moment, their liberation from Egyptian bondage.

No less than four times in the verses preceding the incident the Torah indicates the importance of commemorating the liberation from Egypt and yet these men who performed a final mitzvah for a fellow Israelite were (temporarily) excluded from its observance with the Israelite people.  Moses responded to their appeal:

Moses said to them, “Stand by, and let me hear what instructions the Lord gives about you.” 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, 11 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,

The incident exposes several ideas, first that the revelation of Torah at Sinai had not accounted for all cases; with Moses’ appeal, God amended the law to account for the new circumstances.  Second, the men placed a priority on the mitzvah of ben adam l’chavero (caring for one’s neighbour) over and above the mitzvah of ben adam l’makom (ritual act).  Third, the Torah implicitly accepts the notion that people are entitled to a second chance.

The Talmud further clarifies the text, in verse 10, stating that if someone is on a long journey and misses the first celebration of Passover, he may observe Pesach Sheni instead.  In the Babylonian Talmud there is some discussion about a person’s physical distance from the Temple to be eligible for Pesach Sheni but the Talmud Yerushalmi adds distance as a metaphor; one may also be spiritually distant from the main event of the Jewish people.  Even for those people who feel remote and possibly at odds with Judaism return is always possible.

At the Pesach Seder we recite the legend of the four sons: the wise, the wicked, the innocent and the one who does not even know how to ask.  Of the many sedarim which I have attended, the wicked son has often been the subject of discussion. Why does the midrash call this son wicked?  Is he just misunderstood? Does the wicked son really reject the Jewish tradition? Perhaps there is a bit of the wicked son in each of us, who yearns to do things differently, asking for another chance to make up for past mistakes and indiscretions.

In an essay entitled “My Lost City,” the author of, The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald, wrote, “I once thought that there were no second acts in American lives, but there was certainly to be a second act to New York’s boom days.”  Fitzgerald repeats the Torah’s optimistic attitude toward human nature in the enactment of Pesach Sheni.  Though we may have been caught short or erred in the past, God gives us permission to rebuild even in light of the shortcomings of our personal histories.  Pesach Sheni is the Torah of second chances.

Rabbi Daniella Kolodny is the Director of Rabbinic Development for Masorti Judaism. 

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