Parashat Beha’alotcha: When It’s Not Too Late

Parashat Beha’alotcha: When It’s Not Too Late

(Delivered by Student Rabbi Maayan Lev on Friday, June 17, 2022)

 

Shabbat shalom everyone. It is so good to be with you all tonight on Zoom. I am sorry I wasn’t at CAH for Shavuot, but I was not feeling well. I felt bad about not being able to make it, which is actually quite in line with this week’s Torah portion, B’ha’alotcha.

B’ha’alotcha contains has many meaty topics, including meat itself! My favorite section, which we will be discussing tomorrow, involves family dynamics. And what better weekend to discuss family dynamics than Father’s Day weekend! I am looking forward to celebrating my father later this weekend, but tonight, I actually want to talk about events pertaining to a different family member of mine: my sister.

My sister was scheduled to have her high school graduation two weeks ago. This would be the last high school graduation in my household, and as the eldest of four siblings, I felt sentimental about it. I was really looking forward to going, but of course, it wasn’t really about me. It was about my sister.

The high school my sister attends takes a strong approach to Covid protocols, and, for the past 2 years, they wanted to find a way to have a graduation ceremony that was safe and respectful of social distancing, but also in-person. Their solution was quite creative: they did graduation in their cars!

All of the students and their families would gather in their cars, in the parking lot next to their classmates’ cars, roll down their windows, and watch graduation play out as if it were a drive-in movie. Instead of going up to receive their diploma, they honked their horn in recognition when their name was called. It was a sweet way to make the best of a bad situation, but this year was going to be different. This year, they were going to have graduation in person, and I was grateful that my sister would not have to graduate in her car.

Of course, we may have underestimated Covid. Even though this pandemic has gotten easier for most people to navigate, it isn’t over. While my sister was able to graduate, about 10% of the chairs on stage were empty. There was no explanation needed. Everyone understood. Those students were not allowed to be there in person, because they had tested positive for COVID. It made sense. Why put hundreds of people at risk by attending the event? But it was sad. They worked four years for this. Their families also made a lot of sacrifices to raise them and get them through high school. The students deserved to be there for graduation, and their families deserved to be there to see it. To put this in academic terms, was this an excused absence? Was it the right call for them not to attend? Yes. But that doesn’t mean it didn’t sting. In this week’s parashah, we actually read about a very similar situation: the origin of Pesach Sheni.

In Numbers chapter 9, G!d commands Moses to tell the Israelites to offer the Passover sacrifice every year on the fourteenth of Nissan, just as their ancestors did in Egypt. It was a sacred obligation. This tradition has stood the test of time. Even today, we pay homage to that sacrifice on the first night of Passover, in the form of a shankbone on our seder plate!

Now, when you have a family seder, often someone can’t make it. In ancient times there were no formal seders the way we have them today, but there was already a problem with absentees who weren’t able to participate in the Passover sacrifice! The circumstances are eerily similar to those of my sister’s graduation.

A party came to Moses and Aaron to complain. They said that they were unable to make the Passover sacrifice at the appointed time, because they were disqualified by virtue of ritual impurity. They had recently handled a corpse, and were therefore unable to participate in rituals for the time being, until they reached a state of purity.

They said to Moses and Aaron, “Yes, we acknowledge that we are in a state of impurity, but we think it’s really unfair that we aren’t able to offer the Passover sacrifice.”

They made a great point! All they were doing was their duty. They had a duty to bury their kin, just as students in my sister’s graduation class who had Covid had a duty to stay home. Why deprive them of something they deserve to partake in? It’s not as though they were disqualified for sins they had committed. To paraphrase the commentary by the great rabbi Sforno, they were saying, “We were only impure because we were following your instructions, G!d! Should we be punished for following instructions? Isn’t burying your kin a positive commandment?” They were missing out on something important to them as a result of fulfilling the positive command, just as there are people who feel like they miss out on important things for fulfilling the isolation obligations associated with a positive Covid test.

Moses didn’t know what to do. He was stumped! And so, he did what many great leaders do when they are stumped. He didn’t rush his answer. He said, “Im-du,” literally, “stand by.” “I admit that I don’t know everything. I am going to consult an expert!” Moses needed to talk to G!d! And this is the answer G!d gave: “The law is the law.” The people were not allowed to offer the Passover sacrifice when they were impure, even though they were impure for a good reason.

Moreover, the Passover sacrifice was time-sensitive. You can’t offer the Passover sacrifice any time of year. Part of the power of the mitzvah is that it’s time-sensitive. There is power in doing a certain thing at a certain time. Think about Shabbat! Imagine if we had Shabbat on a Wednesday! But G!d offered these people a second chance. They could not offer the Passover sacrifice as soon as they became pure again, for that would dilute the time-sensitivity of the mitzvah. But if they waited a little, assuming they would be in a state of ritual purity at the time, they would be able to make the offering on the fourteenth of the coming month, exactly one month from when it was supposed to take place.

This is called Pesach Sheni, “Second Passover,” and though it is rarely mentioned today, some individuals mark it by eating matzah on Pesach Sheni if they couldn’t attend a seder.

Pesach Sheni is not a true Passover. According to Rashi and the Talmud,[1] there is no need for people observing it to eat matzah for a week. It only lasts one night. The purpose is not to have a formal seder, either. Just to offer the Passover sacrifice, which is commonly represented today as a Shankbone. For that one night though, those who observe the Second Passover are to present that paschal sacrifice, and eat it with matzah and bitter herbs.

Pesach Sheni, the Second Passover, is not for everyone who missed out on the actual date of Passover. You have to have missed it for a good reason. If you missed it due to laziness, or because you chose to prioritize another obligation that night, then the Torah says you are responsible for that choice, and you have missed your chance, and have to wait until next year. But for those who had a good excuse, such as being in a state of ritual impurity, which for modern purposes, can be translated to include illnesses such as Covid, they are allowed to do it one month later.

Circling back to my sister’s graduation, her high school came up with something quite similar. For those who missed graduation due to Covid, they held a smaller, quieter ceremony for them two weeks later. They understood that it was not the same ceremony as the real graduation, and there was no point in pretending that they hadn’t missed out on the big festivities with their classmates. Similarly, on Second Passover, we don’t celebrate it for a week, for there is no use pretending that this is the main event. But we still do it! Why do we do it? Because we care! Because it means something to us!

People who celebrate Pesach Sheini today tend to be the people who aren’t satisfied with having to wait a full year to celebrate the Passover they missed. They want to do it this year! And they even wait a full month to do it, making sure it still falls on the fourteenth, to show that although they know they are late, they understand that the mitzvah is still time-sensitive, and they are still choosing to do it on the fourteenth of the month, like those who did it on Passover proper. They can say that they have fulfilled their obligation! Better late than never! Indeed, better late than never!

Did all my sister’s classmates who missed the first graduation ceremony choose to attend the second one? I don’t know, but from what I understand, I doubt it. It was their choice. But the school offered it, saying, “if it matters to you, we want to do right by you and give you this opportunity, even if it wasn’t the one you were hoping for.” As for Pesach Sheni, why didn’t G!d offer it as an alternative when HaShem first commanded Moses about Passover? I like to think that it wouldn’t have been offered if the people didn’t first come to Moses and complain. They showed that they weren’t satisfied with being exempt from the work of the commandment. It mattered to them! I believe that the alternative was offered because they showed they cared about it.

In a nutshell, the story of Pesach Sheni, at least in 2022, says that sometimes, when we miss out on an event, it is a boring obligation that we are happy to have an excuse for missing. But for the things you truly care about: better late than never.

Over the course of a lifetime, we all have things that we want to accomplish. Things we want to achieve at work or home, places we want to go, things we want to do, perhaps people we want to live to meet. Eventually, you reach a point where you are forced to admit, some of those things will never be possible for us. But not being able to do some of those things, doesn’t mean it’s too late to do other things on that list. Every day is a gift. Use it how you will, but remember, that while it’s sometimes too late to do certain things, it’s never too late to do something! Shabbat shalom!

[1] BT P’sachim 95a.

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