Earlier this week, was the 14th of Iyar, a day known as “Pesach Sheni” and for me, coincidentally, the day I commemorated my father’s yahrzeit. Pesach Sheni is often presented as a model for “second chances”. It takes place exactly one month after the 14th of Nisan, the day before Passover, which was the day prescribed for bringing the Korban Pesach (“Paschal offering”, i.e. Passover lamb) in anticipation of that holiday. As described in the source text for this mitzvah (Numbers 9:1–14), the Children of Israel were about to celebrate Passover one year after leaving Egypt. The offering of the Korban Pesach was at the core of that celebration. However “certain men” were “ritually impure” from contact with human corpses, and were therefore ineligible to participate in the Korban Pesach. Faced with the conflict of the requirement to participate in the Korban Pesach and their ineligibility due to impurity, they approached Moses and Aaron for instructions, which resulted in the communication of the law of Pesach Sheni.
Somehow, in spite of us having no Temple or sacrifices, Pesach Sheni has gained momentum, with people writing how this stands for our tradition allowing for second chances, and I, can’t help but argue the opposite.
In Gemara, we have learning rules, which teach us that an exception elucidates, not only itself but the general category which it belongs to. To me this means, that what the 14th of Iyar is teaching is exactly the opposite: it’s exactly about how rare second chances are, and to about the fact that we “have them” in life. We don’t have “second Yom Kippur” a month later, nor a second Sukkot or anything; how about Shabbat on Tuesday after (oops, I didn’t get to rest and need a “second chance”)? Nothing. The fact that the ‘ritually impure” had to ask is because it does not happen, and not because it does.
If anything, Pesach Sheni teaches us that second chances are incredibly hard to come by. Of course, for me, this is doubled by the “yahrzeit”, for there is nothing like a yahrzeit to remind us that we’d better get busy living, and not wait.
Also this week was Lag Ba’Omer, a day which celebrates “various events”, per Hebrew Wikipedia. Indeed, while there are “party lines” (the day Rabbi Akiva’s students stopped dying in a plague; the day Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai was born, some say – got married, and died), it’s mostly a mysterious day. What is it that we are celebrating? Nevertheless, half a million people came to Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai’s gravesite at Mount Meiron in the Upper Galil to celebrate… the unknown; to rejoice in the fact that there are, and hopefully will always be, things we don’t know and don’t – and can’t! – understand. In a world where we can explain “everything” with science, it’s good to know that we haven’t’ given up on the unexplainable as well.
I’ve grown to appreciate the work of the priests in the Temple, mentioned in this and last week’s Torah reading, as well as the rabbis’ intense and detailed learning of it as expressed in the current Tractate Zvachim (learned in daf yomi): How exactly are the priests to wear the garments? How are they to wash their hands? What about a wrong intend during any stage of the sacrifice? Mostly, I see the sages struggling with immense trepidation: any minute now, any minute now!! the Temple might be rebuilt and what if were not ready?! What if we mess up and sacrifices won’t work? For them, it was like dealing with radioactive material that might explode if mishandled, and needs all the care in the world.
Almost 2000 years have gone by, and yet, we’re still closing the daily Count of the Omer of this season with the words: “The Merciful One, may He bring back the service at the Temple to tis place, speedily in our times, Amen Sela”.