Finding Our Way Back

[Dvar Torah delivered on 6/8/12]

In Numbers 9: 6-14, we read:

6 But there were some people who were ritually impure from proximity to a corpse, so that they were not been able to make the Passover [offering] on that day; and they came before Moses and before Aaron on that day.

7 Those people said to him: “We are ritually impure from proximity to a corpse. Why should we be kept back, so as not to offer Adonai’s offering at its appointed time among the Israelites?”

8 Moses said to them: “Stand by that I may hear what Adonai will command for you.”

9 And Adonai  spoke to Moses, saying:

10  “Speak to the Israelites, saying:  When any of you or your generations will be ritually impure  from proximity to a corpse,  or on a far journey, any such person shall still [be able to] make the Passover [offering] for Adonai.

11 In the second month on the fourteenth day at dusk they shall keep it; they shall eat it with matzah and bitter herbs.

12 They shall not leave any of it until morning, nor shall they break any bone of it; according to all the statute of the Passover [offering] shall they do it.

13 But the person who is ritually pure, and is not on a journey, yet fails to make the Passover [offering]  --  that soul shall be cut off from her people; because he did not offer Adonai’s offering at its appointed time --- that person shall bear his [or her] sin.

14 And if a stranger shall reside among you, and would make the Passover [offering] to Adonai ---  according to the statute of the Passover [offering], and according to its ordinance, so shall he [or she] do;  one statute shall there be for you --- both for the stranger and for the citizen of the land.” 


The above passage from Parshat Beha’alotekha that we find at Numbers 9: 6-14 is one that I find particularly meaningful.  And I’ve been spinning my wheels the past several days trying to figure out how best to convey to you why it resonates with me so much. 

I guess what strikes me about the law of “Pesach Sheni”/ “Second Passover” is how the Torah here is teaching us about values that I hold so dear ---- about inclusivity, about giving people the benefit of the doubt, about being patient, about being creative..

How do we uncover all of these themes in the text before us?  Well, first of all, we must remember that when we say “Torah” we don’t mean just the words of the Five Books of Moses:  We also mean the rabbinic, medieval, modern and contemporary commentaries that have grown up around them.  And we also mean the evidence of our individual lives that we bring to the text.

In this week’s parasha, we find ourselves camped at the foot of Mount Sinai, where we’ve been hanging out for almost a year, and finally we’re ready to move onwards from this place of Revelation towards the promised land.  But first, we have a new law that seems to be given not at God’s initiative like all the others, but rather as God’s response to the initiative of a few marginalized yet chutzpadik individuals:

It’s around the time of the first anniversary of that first Passover that had been observed in Egypt on the last night before the Exodus.  Now, a year later, Moses has just reminded us (in Numbers 9: 1-4) that it’s time to celebrate Passover again. 

How exciting to be able to celebrate Passover away from the repression of our former taskmasters. 

Ever since then, Passover has remained such a powerful observance.  Why is Passover so powerful?  Because it symbolizes that God is not ONLY the God of the cyclical laws of nature – but that God is ALSO the passionate champion of the downtrodden who intervenes in history on the side of those seeking liberation from oppression. 

Or, for those of us with a more naturalistic approach to faith, Passover symbolizes the power of the human yearning to be free --- and the inevitability that oppressors will be defeated when people of good will join together in pursuit of justice.

To put it another way – Passover – in its aspect of z’man cheyruteinu,  the season of our freedom – teaches us that it’s wrong to think [to quote Ecclesiastes] that “There is nothing new under the sun”  (Ecclesiastes 1:9b).  Rather --- there is progress in the course of history – or – [to quote Dan Savage’s popular youtube campaign:]   “It gets better.”

In our Torah portion, we find a group of individuals who could not participate in the celebration of Passover with the rest of the Israelites on that first anniversary of the Exodus.  At that time, the main ritual component of Passover was the offering of the Korban Pesach, the Passover sacrificial offering – a lamb which after being slaughtered was to be shared among all the people of one’s household, eaten together with matzah and bitter herbs, with no bone of it broken, and with none of it left over by morning. 

In modern Passove seders, the shank bone on the seder plate, which we no longer eat since the destruction of the Second Temple, is placed as a reminder of the Korban Pesach.  And the eating of the Afikomen after the main meal also functions as a substitution for the eating of the Passover offering in ancient times.

But back in the times that the Korban Pesach (Passover Offering) was carried out, the rule, as set forth in the Torah, was that one needed to be in a state of ritual purity in order to take part.  In particular, if one had been in proximity of a human corpse, one could not make the Korban Pesach until returning to a state of ritual purity.   

So, anyway, these individuals come forth and complain --- They had been unable to take part in that powerful Passover ritual at its appointed time  -- but they still want to be able to do so now. 

Moses considers their plight and is granted a new revelation from God that they can do so at dusk exactly one month after the official date for Passover.   And that, henceforth, this Second Passover [on the 14th of Sivan] will be an opportunity available not just for anyone who had been ritually impure on the official date of Passover, but also for anyone who had been בדרך רחקה  (“on a far journey”) at that time – and that this same opportunity will be available to both native born citizen and sojourning stranger alike.

What lessons do we draw from this?

First of all, we draw inspiration from the fact that the Torah changes the legal definition of Passover to enable more people to be able to participate in it.  [How many other legal institutions can we think of that need similar updating?]

Second, we note that the Torah takes seriously the concerns of the people who have been shut out from participating in Passover.  It doesn’t berate them for not having gotten themselves ready for Passover on time.  It doesn’t presume to judge the circumstances that led to their situation.  Indeed, the midrashic tradition says that the people who were ritually impure when Passover time came around were in that state because they had been engaged at the time in another mitzvah – According to one view in the Talmud, they had been attending to the coffin of Joseph, who we may recall had asked that his bones be taken from Egypt back to Eretz Yisra’el when the Exodus would finally come.     

We too, should be careful not to make judgments about anyone else’s ritual observance.  For all we know, someone who is not taking part in a particular observance along with the rest of us might be busy doing another mitzvah that could be of equal importance.

Finally, there is an important lesson to be learned from the Torah’s addition of the phrase בדרך רחקה  (“on a far journey”).  The plain meaning of that phrase is that a person was physically far enough away from the Tabernacle (or in later eras far enough away from the Temple in Jerusalem) that they couldn’t get there in time to do the Passover offering at its appointed time.  But the Torah scribes known as the Masoretes passed on to us a tradition that we place a special dot on top of the letter hey in the word “rechokah” (“far”). 

Rashi says that this special signal tells us that being on a “far journey” doesn’t literally have to refer to a huge physical distance.  He says that the description could apply even to someone standing right outside the threshold of the Temple courtyard (Rashi on Num. 9:10).  Rabbi Harold Kushner, in his commentary to this verse in the “Etz Hayim Torah Commentary” cites the Jerusalem Talmud (JT Pes. 9:2) to teach that the phrase “far journey” can include a person “who is spiritually distant from God and the Jewish people” and that “[s]uch a person need not feel permanently exiled.”  (“D’rash Commentary” on Num. 9:10, Etz Hayyim Torah Commentary, p. 820).

All of us at one time or another may feel spiritually or emotionally distant from our Jewish heritage.  But the teaching of Pesach Sheni / “Second Passover” reminds us that, no matter what derekh rechokah, no matter what far off journey, we may be on -- emotionally or geographically ---  there is always the opportunity to reconnect with our people and with our people’s highest ideals. 

The eternal message of Passover – of spiritual and political liberation – remains the story of each and every one of us and of all humanity.

Shabbat Shalom

© Rabbi David Steinberg (Sivan 5772/ June 2012)

Posted on June 15, 2012 .