Parashat B'ha'alothkha

Sometimes, There Are Second Chances

Of "Second Passover," Rabbi Akiva, and adult bat mitzvahs

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Moses seeks God's counsel and returns with a unique concession, that individuals who are precluded from participating by virtue of defilement or being on a long journey may offer the paschal sacrifice exactly one month later, that is on the twilight of the 14th of Iyar rather than the 14th of Nisan (9:1-14). The accommodation gave rise to what became known as Pesach Sheni or a second Passover which remained operative as long as the Temple stood. Today the date on the calendar is merely noted by the slightest of changes in the morning prayer service.

But the passage remains noteworthy. For one, it offers a classic example of the intimate connection between nomos and narrative in the Torah. Law repeatedly springs from a narrative context, in our case a lasting ritual concession from a minor historical incident. The Torah is far more than a codification of law, though at its core it most assuredly is a legal digest whose disparate ordinances are often put into a narrative setting for effect and explication.

Secondly, the passage reveals a striking exception. No similar concession is granted for missing any other festival. There is no second chance for those who for some valid reason are unable to observe Sukkot or Yom Kippur. The added dimension of Passover seems to be its thoroughly national character. It commemorates the founding of ancient Israel as God's emissary to humanity. Each time that the nation was reconstituted by Joshua, Hezekiah, Josiah, and Ezra, the occasion was marked by a public celebration of the Passover festival.

The import of Pesah Sheni seems to be the integration of the individual into the religious polity. To sacrifice the Paschal lamb was to reaffirm one's sense of belonging. Hence, the possibility of a second chance. Annually, everyone had to avow and renew the bonds of national affiliation.

Pesah Sheni ended up more important in a psychological vein. The accommodation caught the optimistic spirit of Judaism. Human beings are endowed with the capacity to avail themselves of a second chance. Neither habit nor fate is the final arbiter of what we do with our lives. Pesah Sheni brings to mind the stirring odyssey of R. Akiva whose life turned on the intrusion of a second chance.

As a young man, according to the Talmud, Rabbi Akiva was no more than an illiterate shepherd for one of the richest men in Jerusalem. His daughter, however, fell in with Rabbi Akiva because of his modest demeanor. She also recognized his innate talent and promised to marry him if he would go off to study Torah. He agreed and they married secretly. But when her father discovered the breach of social etiquette, he drove them from his home, disowning his daughter.

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Rabbi Ismar Schorsch

Rabbi Ismar Schorsch served as chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary.