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SECOND CHANCE

by Rabbi Alexander Heppenheimer    
Torah from Dixie Staff Writer    

Everyone knows about the holiday of Passover. But there is a much less well-known sequel to it described in this week's Torah portion. Almost a year after the exodus, as Passover was approaching, Hashem commands Moses to remind the people to prepare for the holiday and to bring the korban Pesach (Pascal lamb) in the appropriate fashion.

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Everyone knows about the holiday of Passover. But there is a much less well-known sequel to it described in this week's Torah portion. Almost a year after the exodus, as Passover was approaching, Hashem commands Moses to remind the people to prepare for the holiday and to bring the korban Pesach (Pascal lamb) in the appropriate fashion. And then, amid all the hustle and bustle of holiday preparations, a group of men made their way to Moses with a complaint: They were tamei (spiritually impure) because of contact with a dead body, and therefore unable to bring the offering. "Why should we lose out on this mitzvah?" (Numbers 9:7) they protested.

To which Hashem responded with the laws of Pesach Sheni, the "Second Passover". If a person is tamei, or at a great distance from the Temple, or for any other reason unable to bring the korban Pesach on the 14th of Nissan, then he or she has another chance exactly one month later, on the 14th of Iyar. Then they eat the lamb on that evening, with matzah and marror, just as at the Passover Seder. (To this day, even though there unfortunately is no offering to be brought on either the 14th of Nissan or the 14th of Iyar, we celebrate Pesach Sheni as a minor festival.)

The Talmud lists several differences between these two observances of Passover, the standard one and the "makeup" one. For one, Pesach Sheni is a one-day holiday, in contrast with the seven-day (or eight-day, outside of the land of Israel) Passover. Another would no doubt come as a relief to anyone who still hadn't gotten over Passover cleaning: There is no requirement to remove chametz (leaven) from one's possession on the second Passover.

These details, like all details of Torah law, are not trivial, but go straight to the heart of what the mitzvah is all about. The lesson of Pesach Sheni is that G­d gives second chances - that one can never be so far removed from Hashem that it is hopeless to try to return to Him. So we would expect that the episode that triggered the giving of this mitzvah, and all of its aspects, should reflect the struggle of the baal teshuvah, the penitent sinner, to reestablish his relationship with Hashem.

Teshuvah (repentance) is something that is essentially not only supernatural but also super-Torah. Logically, one would think that an action done is an action irreversible, and that the destructive effects of a transgression can no more be undone than a murder victim can be revived. The fact that teshuvah is possible, and can even transform past negative acts into positive ones, is a measure of the depth of our connection with G-d, a parent-child relationship which transcends all logical factors. (Note: This does not mean that a person may deliberately violate mitzvot with the intention of later doing teshuvah and intensifying his relationship with Hashem! The Talmud cautions that a person who acts this way loses that "second chance".)

The first thing we notice with regard to the mitzvah of Pesach Sheni is that it was not given in the standard way, by the usual chain of command of Torah, but had to be evoked by the demand of a group of people who felt their spiritual failing (in being tamei, since spiritual impurity represents the antithesis of nearness to Hashem), and, to boot, were in contact with dead bodies, themselves a symbol of distance from Hashem, the source of all life. But, like in the case of the baal teshuvah, out of this distance itself was born a greater longing for closeness with G­d - "Why should we lose out?". The regular Passover lasts seven days because seven represents the natural order (seven days of creation, for example) which runs by way of cause-and-effect, step-by-step processes. On Passover, we are all righteous people who serve Hashem in the "standard" way by observing His mitzvot in a prescribed fashion. But the second Passover is the festival of the baal teshuvah, who "short-circuits" the normal way of serving Hashem. He can take an entire life of transgressions and transform and rededicate it to Hashem in one flash of inspiration. As a result, the holiday is only one day long.

Chametz (leaven) represents evil, defined as anything that opposes the realization of Hashem's goals for the world, because the root of all anti-G­dly forces is a feeling of ego and independence from the Creator, represented by the "puffed-upness" of leaven. For a righteous person, the path to Hashem excludes anything that the Torah declares to be irredeemable because it is too thoroughly saturated with spiritual impurity; therefore his divine service must be purified of all "leaven". But what of someone who has already wandered off into that "off-limits" area and now wants to return? Such a person uses the energy expended in the wrong direction to power a mighty rebound in the other - in other words, takes the "chametz" and drags it, too, into participating in his new G­dly lifestyle. So, at the second Passover, both leaven and matzah can be eaten together, because for the baal teshuvah they each have their place.

We usually think of the baal teshuvah and the tzaddik (righteous person) as mutually exclusive: a person either always followed the right path or did not. But there is more to teshuvah than just the repair of negative actions. Even the greatest tzaddik does teshuvah, because even he lives in a physical body and has physical needs that infringe, however slightly, on the soul's relationship with its Creator. Put differently, being a human in a body means that all communication between Hashem and the soul has to be filtered through that body, and like any filter, it introduces some distortion. In that sense, then, life is (or should be) a constant state of teshuvah in its most literal meaning of "return" to Hashem, and this teshuvah is accomplished precisely via the mitzvot, which are designed for souls enveloped in physical bodies!

Reflecting these two views of teshuvah, then, the Talmud records a discussion as to whether Pesach Sheni is "a makeup for the first Passover" (representing teshuvah as a makeup for missed opportunity), or "a festival in its own right" (symbolizing teshuvah as the normal and desirable way for anyone to relate to Hashem). From this second perspective, the very fact of being human and alive should inspire us to greater heights in the service of Hashem, and, like the spiritually impure men of Moses' day, launch us on a never-ending quest for better ways to do Hashem's will.

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Rabbi Alexander Heppenheimer, a graduate of Yeshivas Tomchei Tmimim of Brooklyn, is a baal korei (Torah reader) in Atlanta.

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