Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Second Chances- Thoughts on this Peisach Sheini

For a long time I have connected to the idea of Pesach Sheini. Being that today, the 14th of Iyar, is Pesach Sheni, I thought I'd touch on a few ideas about the mitzvah and why it speaks to me, as a way of explaining why I chose it as the name for my blog.

One year after leaving Egypt, the Jewish people were commanded to observe Pesach (why it was necessary at that time and whether this was a one time commandment is beyond the scope of this essay). Among other things, this commandment meant that they would sacrifice the Korban Pesach. There were a number of men who were impure, having come in contact with a dead body. They approached Moshe and asked why they should lose out on this mitzvah. Moshe was told by God that they would be given a second chance, one month later to give this sacrifice. This was not a one time event. Each year, those who were unable to give the Korban Pesach, were given a second opportunity on Pesach Sheini. (For an incredible post and story about a Pesach Sheini seder in a concentration camp, click here).

There are several obvious questions on this whole episode:

  1. Why did these men think they deserved a second chance? They were impure, a consequence of which is that they can not give the sacrifice.
  2. Why did they want a second chance? After all, they were exempt from the mitzvah and would not have been punished.
  3. Why did God give them a second chance? By other korbanos, if you miss it, there is no second chance.

Clearly, these men had not become impure due to carelessness on their part. Otherwise their question would not have made sense, and Moshe would not have taken it seriously. Whether we go with a simple reading of the text they were simply involved with some issue of taking care of someone who died, or we accept the ideas proposed in the midrash, they were involved with a mitzvah which required them to become impure.

The second question brings us to the crux of the issue. What are mitzvohs and why do we do them? Chazal teach us that “Sechar mitzvah, mitzvah”, the reward for a mitzvah is a mitzvah. Based on the Rambam, I would suggest that this means that the reward for doing a mitzvah is...that you have done a mitzvah. Any other possible reward is beyond the point. By doing a mitzvah you have encountered God. That is the true reward.

Rav Kalonymous Kalman Shapira ztvk'l, the Holy Piaczena Rebbe, became the rebbe for the Jews of the Warsaw Ghetto. Through Divine providence, his collected drashos, delivered to Jews who were suffering terribly (as was he), were saved. Imagine what it must have been like trying to give hope to people who had none. In one drasha, he discusses the idea from Pirkei Avos that we should serve God without the expectation to receive reward. Basing himself on Rashi, he suggests that even if there was no reward, we would still serve HaShem. In the most terrible situation, he reminded his desperate followers that serving God, no matter the circumstances, was the greatest thing possible. Mitzvohs are themselves are the reward. With this understanding, it becomes clear why those who could not give the Korban Pesach wanted a second chance.

Still, we are left to wonder why here, by this specific mitzvah, a second chance was given. The Sefer HaChinuch suggests that because so much of our beliefs are reinforced through the mitzvohs of Pesach, including, belief in creation, and that God loves us and is involved in our lives, it was important that everyone have the chance to observe them. I'd like to extend this idea a little.

When we bury the dead, we demonstrate that we believe many important ideas. Among them are a belief that our lives matter, that we have a connection to the creator, a connection that comes through, among other things, performing mitzvohs. I would suggest that a second chance was given davka here and davka to these men because they recognized the true purpose of mitzvohs in general and the mitzvohs of the Korban Pesach in particular.

For nearly two years, I went through a very rough time. Part of that was a religious crisis. I did not know if or how it would be resolved. On this Pesach Sheini, I celebrate the fact that I again connect to God through his Torah and mitzvohs. I thank God that he did not lose faith in me, even as I questioned my faith in him.

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