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Parshat Beha’alotcha: Second Chances

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May 20, 2013
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Context


As the first anniversary of the Exodus approaches, God commands Moshe to instruct the nation concerning the rituals of the Korban Pesach.


The people comply, offering the korban on the afternoon of the fourteenth day of Nissan.


A number of individuals, however, approach Moshe with a problem: “We are tamei, ritually impure [and are thus unable to offer the Korban Pesach]…lama nigara, why should we be diminished by not offering the Lord’s korban in its appointed time in the midst of the children of Israel?”


When Moshe turns to God for direction, God responds by introducing the concept of Pesach Sheini, a second Pesach: “If any man becomes contaminated through contact with a human corpse or is on a distant road, he shall make a Korban Pesach for the Lord. In the second month, on the fourteenth day, in the afternoon, shall they make it; with matzot and bitter herbs shall they consume it.”


While the full observances of the festival of Pesach are not repeated on Pesach Sheini, the occasion provides a “second chance” for those who were unable to offer the Paschal Lamb on Pesach itself to do so a month later.


 


Questions


Why does God create a second chance in conjunction with – and only in conjunction with – the holiday of Pesach? The law does not provide, for example, a Yom Kippur Sheini for those unable to fast on Yom Kippur.


Nor is a Succot Sheini mandated for those who cannot sit in the succa on the holiday of Succot. What dimension unique to the festival of Pesach warrants the creation of an official makeup date?


Furthermore, if Pesach Sheini is warranted, why is it not included in the halachic code from the outset? Why doesn’t God instruct the nation concerning the laws of Pesach Sheini when He first introduces the Korban Pesach on the eve of the Exodus? Why wait until those who cannot participate on Pesach object?


Finally, exactly who is allowed to participate in Pesach Sheini? While legitimate inability to offer the Korban Pesach at the appointed time is the apparent criteria, the Torah’s definition of such inability is a puzzlingly restrictive. Why limit the observance of Pesach Sheini only to those who are ritually impure or who are at a distance from the Sanctuary at the time of the offering of the Korban Pesach? What of those individuals who are constrained from taking part in the Korban Pesach for other legitimate reasons? Is someone too ill to participate on Pesach, for example, included in the opportunities offered by Pesach Sheini? If not, why not? If so, why doesn’t the Torah say so?


 


Approaches


A


Our analysis of Pesach Sheini begins with the most basic of the questions presented. What is the rationale behind this phenomenon? Why in the case of Pesach, and only in the case of Pesach, is a second chance for at least partial observance offered within the halachic code?


An answer to this question is potentially derived from an unexpected source that can help reframe and deepen our understanding of the Pesach festival itself.


Consider the approach mandated by Jewish law towards an individual who wishes to convert to Judaism. Hesitation, caution and discouragement are the order of the day. Armed with the belief that those outside our faith tradition are not required to be like us, we confront the candidate with a sobering truth and an obvious question: It is hard to be a Jew. Why, if you are under no obligation to do so, would you want to take this difficult step?


Not so well known, however, is the exact form that this initial caution is meant to take. Contrary to expectations, we do not plunge immediately into a discussion of the mitzvot; we do not emphasize the difficult responsibilities and monumental life changes that the potential convert proposes to accept.


Instead, the Talmud lays out a vastly different introductory path for the would-be Jew:


The rabbis taught: [if a prospective] proselyte comes to convert in the present era, we say to him: “What did you perceive that prompted you to come? Do you not know that Israel [i.e., the Jewish people] is, in this day, afflicted, oppressed, downtrodden and harassed – and that hardships are frequently visited upon them?” If the individual responds: “I know, and I am not even worthy [to share in their hardships],” we accept him immediately [as a potential convert worthy of education].4


Only after this interchange has taken place, continues the Talmud, do we begin to teach the candidate about the enormous responsibilities inherent in the halachic code.5


Why must the potential convert’s formal journey towards Judaism open with a discussion of the historical persecution of the Jewish nation? Why not strike to the core issue facing the candidate immediately: his central challenge of kabbalat ol mitzvot, an understanding and acceptance of the yoke (the obligations carried by) the commandments?


Apparently the rabbis intuited a prerequisite to the acceptance of mitzvot. The first step towards Jewishness is the step of “belonging.” Only someone who is willing to be part of the historical saga of the Jewish nation, who commits to share in that nation’s challenges, to mourn its losses and celebrate its triumphs – only that person can begin to accept the Jewish faith as his or her own. In short, potential candidates must be willing to throw their lot in with the Jewish people, whatever trials that choice might produce, whatever difficulties might ensue.


 


B


What, however, is the basis of this rabbinic position? What source can Talmud scholars cite to support their confident claim that conversion to Judaism must begin with the choice to “belong”?


The answer, it would seem, is powerfully simple. The rabbis believe that the initial journey of an individual who wishes to join the Jewish nation must mirror the initial journey of the nation itself.


As we have noted before, the birth of the Jewish nation unfolds in two formative stages: the Exodus and Revelation.


Before our ancestors could arrive at Sinai, they had to be willing to leave Egypt, to throw their lot in with a fledgling people traveling towards an unknown future, under the guidance of a relative stranger. Only those willing to take a chance on the Jewish people are privileged to stand in God’s presence at Sinai when the Jewish nation is born.


A potential convert to Judaism, apparently, must undergo the two-step transformative process that defined the birth of the nation he wishes to join. The rituals of the conversion process itself are derived from the experiences of the Israelites immediately prior to and during the Revelation at Sinai The first step towards those rituals, however, like the first step of our national journey, is rooted in the Exodus.


Before a potential convert can “arrive at Sinai,” before he can begin to encounter God’s law, he must first “leave Egypt.” He must consciously separate himself from the world he has known and affiliate with the Jewish nation. This act of affiliation, mirroring the Israelites’ Exodus experience, launches his journey towards Judaism.


 


C


We can now begin to understand the rationale for the creation of Pesach Sheini. So elemental is the Korban Pesach, so fundamental to our Jewish identity and experience, that God provides a second chance for those who are initially unable to participate. Pesach is, after all, where we begin as a people. No one should miss out on the yearly renewal of our shared affiliation. No one should be excluded as we re-create our first steps together.


The journey towards Jewishness opens with the step of belonging. Each year, as that journey is reaffirmed, every member of the community must be given the opportunity to join.


 


D


Our analysis of the basis for Pesach Sheini may well shed light on a series of perplexing laws concerning this festival of second chances.


As noted above, the Torah seems to limit participation in Pesach Sheini to those who are ritually impure or at a distance from the Sanctuary on Pesach. The rabbis, however, interpret the biblical mandate much more extensively. In two sentences in the Mishna, they increase the reach of this makeup festival:


An individual who is ritually impure or at a distance and did not perform the first [Korban Pesach] shall perform the second [on Pesach Sheini].



[An individual who otherwise] erred or was legitimately constrained from performing the first [Korban Pesach] shall perform the second [on Pesach Sheini].


The legal verdict of the Mishna is clear. The laws of Pesach Sheini apply not only to those who are impure or at a distance, but to all those who are legitimately constrained from participating in the Korban Pesach at its appointed time. This conclusion (and the Mishna’s own construction), however, raises a much more difficult question. If Pesach Sheini applies to all those who are excluded from participation on Pesach, why does the Torah specify the categories of tuma and distance? Why not simply apply the laws of Pesach Sheini in broad strokes from the outset, to anyone who legitimately missed the Korban Pesach?


The Mishna itself answers this question with a terse response that is interpreted differently by different authorities. The Rambam’s formulation of the law, accepted by many, can be summarized as follows: All individuals who are legitimately constrained for any reason from participating in the Korban Pesach in its appointed time are obligated to offer a korban on Pesach Sheini. The Torah, however, distinguishes in the area of punishment between those who cannot participate on Pesach because of impurity or distance and those whose inability stems from other sources:


1. An individual whose legitimate failure to participate in the Korban Pesach arises out of a reason other than impurity or distance is liable to the punishment of karet, excision from the community, if he deliberately chooses not to take advantage of the second chance offered to him by Pesach Sheini.


2. An individual, however, who fails to participate in the Korban Pesach because of impurity or distance is not liable for the punishment of karet even if he deliberately fails to offer a korban on Pesach Sheini. Such an individual, the Rambam notes, “has already been exempted from the punishment of karet on Pesach itself.”


At face value, this halachic verdict seems totally counterintuitive. While Pesach Sheini applies to all who are unable to partake in the Korban Pesach at its appointed time, the law is most lenient concerning the two categories that are specifically mentioned in the Torah: ritual impurity and distance. Individuals who fall into these categories are exempt from punishment even if they deliberately ignore the opportunities presented by Pesach Sheini. All others, however, who legitimately miss participation on Pesach are liable for punishment if they deliberately fail to observe Pesach Sheini.


Wouldn’t we expect the opposite to be true? Shouldn’t the law show greatest severity towards those whose obligation in Pesach Sheini derives directly from the text?


So puzzling is the Rambam’s codification of the law that the Ra’avad immediately objects: “Now [the Rambam] contradicts himself! What difference is there between impure or distant individuals who deliberately ignore the obligations of Pesach Sheini and others who deliberately ignore those same obligations?”


 


E


Our above-outlined discussion concerning the origins of Pesach Sheini, however, provides an approach towards the Rambam’s halachic formulation based on the following assumptions:


1. The obligation to participate in the Korban Pesach derives from the root concept of affiliation with the community. All individuals “affiliated” with the Jewish community at the time of the Pesach Sacrifice automatically become fully obligated to share in the ritual.


2. An individual who, at the time of the first Korban Pesach, is fully affiliated with the community but who, for tangential reasons, cannot participate in the Korban Pesach at its appointed time (e.g., someone who is ill) nonetheless remains obligated in the ritual. This obligation derives from his connection to the community on Pesach itself. For such an individual, participation in Pesach Sheini becomes a full obligation, providing a second chance to fulfill a responsibility already incurred at the time of the first Korban Pesach.


3. In response to the objections of the group that approaches Moshe, however, God defines two categories of individuals who are essentially excluded from participation in the Korban Pesach. Their exclusion is not tangential but rises out of a fundamental separation from the community at the time of Pesach. These individuals – the ritually impure, who are spiritually separate, and the distant, who are geographically detached – never became obligated in the Pesach sacrifice in the first place and are thus completely exempt from potential punishment regarding the Korban. Pesach Sheini emerges for these individuals, as a unique halachic construct: an obligatory opportunity.


As a result of the historic request outlined in the text, the law affords individuals who legitimately find themselves separated from the community on Pesach with the opportunity to affiliate at a later date. Once offered, this opportunity becomes obligatory as the Torah enjoins these individuals to take advantage of the second chance for affiliation that Pesach Sheini represents. There is, however, no punishment for failure. The exemption from punishment reflects the fact that Pesach Sheini initially originates as an opportunity rather than an obligation for these individuals.


 


F


Two other fascinating cases considered by the Talmud may well connect to our analysis of the Rambam’s halachic codification. What is the law, the rabbis ask, concerning an individual who converts to Judaism or a child who reaches the age of halachic responsibility during the month between Pesach and Pesach Sheini? Are such individuals obligated to bring an offering on Pesach Sheini or are they exempt because they never incurred any obligation at all at the time of Pesach?


While differing opinions are offered in the Talmud, the Rambam is once again emphatic: both the convert and the young adult are obligated in the rituals of Pesach Sheini. Even individuals who were not practicing Jews at the time of Pesach are to be given the opportunity to affiliate with the community once such affiliation becomes possible.


If our analysis is correct, however, such individuals should be exempt from punishment if they fail, even deliberately, to observe Pesach Sheini. The festival should emerge for them, as it does for the impure and the distant, as an “obligatory opportunity.” Unfortunately, however, the Rambam does not comment on the issue of punishment for the convert and the young adult. No proof can therefore be adduced either for or against our arguments.


 


G


Finally, we turn to our last remaining question concerning Pesach Sheini. Why aren’t the laws of this festival of second chances included in the halachic code from the outset? Why does God delay the transmission of these edicts until objections are raised by those unable to participate on Pesach itself?


A fascinating, well-known answer to this question is suggested in the Midrash and quoted by Rashi. God deliberately delays the transmission of the laws of Pesach Sheini in order to reward the individuals who approach Moshe concerning the Korban Pesach. So great is the merit of these individuals that God allows a section of the halachic code to develop as a result of their efforts. The Midrash, however, fails to define the rationale for such overwhelming reward. Why do these individuals deserve to have a section of Torah text recorded in their honor?


 


H


Compounding the mystery is the appearance, later in the book of Bamidbar, of a strangely similar event that seems to give rise to the very same issues.


After God prepares the nation for entry into the Land of Israel by delineating the rules that will govern the division of the land, four women, the daughters of Tzelafchad, approach Moshe with an objection: “Our father died in the wilderness…and he had no sons. Lama yigara, why should the name of our father be diminished among his family because he had no son? Give us a possession among our father’s brothers.”


Once again, Moshe turns to God for guidance and, once again, God responds by outlining a new set of halachic guidelines:


If a man will die and he has no son, you shall cause his inheritance to pass to his daughter. If he has no daughter, you shall give his inheritance to his brothers. If he has no brothers you shall give his inheritance to the brothers of his father. If there are no brothers of his father, you shall give his inheritance to his relative who is closest to him of his family.


Once again, the rabbis ask, why weren’t these rules conveyed to the nation from the outset? Why wait until the daughters of Tzelafchad object?


And once again, Rashi quotes the rabbinic response: “The passages of inheritance should have been written through Moshe, our teacher, but [since] the daughters of Tzelafchad were meritorious, it was written through them.”


And once again, we ask: Wherein lies the great merit of the protagonists in this episode? Why does God deliberately delay the transmission of a pivotal set of laws in order to pay tribute to the daughters of Tzelafchad?


 


I


As is often the case, the Torah embeds its answer in the text.


An uncanny linguistic parallel marks the seemingly disparate narratives of Pesach Sheini and the daughters of Tzelafchad. The heroes of both stories employ strikingly similar language as they raise their problems to Moshe:


Lama nigara, why should we be diminished by not offering the Lord’s korban in its appointed time…


Lama yigara, why should the name of our father be diminished among his family…


In each of these episodes the petitioners perceive participation in a communal mitzva to be an opportunity, missed only at great cost. We will be personally diminished, they maintain, through our inability to take part.


Therein lies their greatness….


Legitimately excused from responsibility for the Pesach ritual, the petitioners who approach Moshe will not rest easy. Exemption, they argue, is not an option. Why should we be denied the gift of participation? Why should the enriching experience of the Korban Pesach be disallowed to us?


Facing their nuclear family’s exclusion from inheritance in the Land of Israel, the daughters of Tzelafchad refuse to remain silent. Why should our family be denied a permanent legacy in the land of our people? Why should the name of our father be erased from the roster of his brothers?


In each of these cases, the divine legal verdict is clear: God provides those who mourn the loss of religious opportunity with new opportunity for fulfillment.


Even further, however, through a delicate interweaving of thought and law, in both the narrative of Pesach Sheini and in the narrative of inheritance, a more pervasive message emerges: when you perceive participation with your people to be a cherished gift worth fighting for; when you feel diminished by an inability to take part in Torah ritual; when you view a mitzva as an opportunity and not as an obligation, you are worthy of a portion of the Torah inscribed in your name.


 


Points to Ponder


Our age of immediacy – in which time is measured in milliseconds, easier is automatically viewed as better and goals must be instantly attained – inexorably shapes our religious attitudes. We find ourselves seeking quicker prayer services, devising shortcuts in holiday preparations and engaging in rote, undemanding ritual observance. We mark Pesach with mass exoduses to ever more exotic vacation spots, hire others to build our succot, buy prepackaged Purim mishloach manot…anything to make our lives a little easier as we balance multiple obligations and, at the same time, struggle to fulfill the letter, if not the spirit, of Jewish law.


In the process, however, we miss the whole point.


For while these commandments are obligations, they are also opportunities: prayer an opportunity to talk to God, Shabbat an opportunity to regain perspective, the holidays opportunities for shared family experience. All mitzvot are opportunities to glimpse the world that lies beyond, to connect with God, to sanctify our existence.


With the investment of time and effort, the observance of the mitzvot can deeply enrich our personal and family lives.


When we learn to view mitzvot as opportunities and not as burdens, we too will merit inscription in the unfolding scroll of our nation’s story.

Parsha:

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Excerpted from 'Unlocking The Torah Text: An In-Depth Journey Into The Weekly Parsha- Bamidbar’

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