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Toward Shabbat: Beha’alotekha

In April of last year, as we approached Pesah in the earliest weeks of the pandemic, it rapidly became painfully clear that large family and community seders would be impossible. As this reality began to sink in, a tradition that had long been unfamiliar to many in Jewish community floated to the surface: Pesah Sheni.

An opportunity for those who were unable to offer the Pesah korban (sacrificial offering) due to ritual impurity, Pesah Sheni is a ritually proscribed opportunity for those to fulfill this mitzvah, several weeks later. In this week’s Parashat Beha’alotekha we’ll read of this tradition:

Moses instructed the Israelites to offer the passover sacrifice; (5) and they offered the passover sacrifice in the first month, on the fourteenth day of the month, at twilight, in the wilderness of Sinai. …But there were some who were unclean by reason of a corpse and could not offer the passover sacrifice on that day. Appearing that same day before Moses and Aaron, they said  “Unclean though we are by reason of a corpse, why must we be debarred from presenting God’s offering at its set time with the rest of the Israelites?” … And God spoke to Moses, saying: …they shall offer it in the second month, on the fourteenth day of the month, at twilight. (Numbers 9:4–11)

In Hassidic tradition, Pesah Sheni is celebrated as an opportunity for teshuvah—return and repentance—for rectifying wrongs and turning past missed opportunities into new potential moments for spiritual strength, commitment, and action. As Hassidic sage Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak writes, “The meaning of the Pesah Sheni is that it is never too late; there is always a second chance.”

I remember vividly the hope that Pesah Sheni 5780/2020 would be the joyful, spiritual, re-emergence of our collective vision. And so, too, do I remember the gradual realization that Pesah Sheni would arrive to an isolated world. That we would still be unable to engage in the rituals of communal prayer and gathering that are not only at the core of our tradition, but at the core of how we make teshuvah and embody tikkun olam—better ourselves and repair the broken shards of our world.

Over a year later, yet another Pesah and Pesah Sheni have come and gone—and we are finally cautiously emerging. We are beginning to see family and friends. To hug and gather. To sing and celebrate. Our beloved Sanctuary is open for prayer. We are able to begin the process of seeking those second chances for korban—and yet, we may feel a sense of being adrift as we make our way through this moment of re-emergence. How will we reconcile the pain and loss of these past many months with the joy and anticipation of this moment?

In the coming weeks of increasing communal encounter, we will grapple with how to bring together past and present. Indeed, that is one of the tenets of the Hassidic understanding of Pesah Sheni. But I would also invite us to tap into the inherent joys of this moment—to imagine ourselves as the Israelite gifted the opportunity for a second chance at korban.

I offer in closing, a piece by the great Mary Oliver, who asks us to notice, embrace, and lean into our joy with humility.

Don’t Hesitate
By Mary Oliver

If you suddenly and unexpectedly feel joy,
don’t hesitate. Give in to it. There are plenty
of lives and whole towns destroyed or about
to be. We are not wise, and not very often
kind. And much can never be redeemed.
Still, life has some possibility left. Perhaps this
is its way of fighting back, that sometimes
something happens better than all the riches
or power in the world. It could be anything,
but very likely you notice it in the instant
when love begins. Anyway, that’s often the case.
Anyway, whatever it is, don’t be afraid
of its plenty. Joy is not made to be a crumb.