Of all the celebratory days on the Jewish calendar, one of the least known (or observed), yet perhaps one of the most inspiring, is a day known as the “second Passover.” Remarkably, it almost didn’t happen.
The story behind this special day is recorded in this week’s parashah (Numbers 9:6). A group of people had been unable to celebrate Passover because they were ritually impure after they had come into contact with a corpse, which excluded them from participating. They complained to Moses, “Why should we be left out? We, too, want to celebrate Passover like everyone else.” Moses was at a loss as what to do so he brought their complaint to God.
God responds with something unexpected. First he tells Moses that he will create a new phenomenon: a makeup Passover to be known as Pesach Sheni (second Passover) exactly one month following Passover. For all future generations, it would be the makeup date for anyone who was unable to observe Passover at its proper time.
It was unexpected for God to specify a new category for those left out, a category that wasn’t part of the original petition. God adds that those who were just too distant to travel to Jerusalem to celebrate Passover would make it up one month later as well.
There is a fascinating discussion in the Talmud (Pesachim 93b) as to the distance one needs to be from Jerusalem in order to be exempt from making the trip. Rabbi Akiva’s opinion is that it must be a distance equivalent from the town of Modi’in to Jerusalem (approximately a half-day’s journey). However, Rabbi Eliezer opines that even if one stood just outside the threshold of the Temple but did not enter, he would be considered as distant.
As the great mystics explain, this is no regular talmudic argument. Rather it is a profound analysis of the Jewish soul. For there are two types of distance, geographic and spiritual. There are those who desire to enter God’s space and experience an exodus of body and soul from all the drudgery and vices of life that hold us back from realizing our potential, but for various reasons are unable to cross the doorstep. For some, it is simply a lack of education and awareness — perhaps growing up far from community or in living in a society where Jewish education wasn’t possible. This requires a journey of study (the town Modi’in in Hebrew translates as knowledge). For others, it’s more complicated — perhaps a trauma from childhood or a catastrophic event that turned a once-passionate spiritual relationship cold. The feeling that God is indifferent to what goes on in their lives and the world at large is a different kind of distance.
Indeed, one can be so close yet so far.
The eternal lesson of Pesach Sheni is that it’s never too late to come home again. No matter whether one has never set foot in a synagogue before, or whether one grew up going but now stands emotionally and psychologically outside its doorstep; one is never too far-gone.
In his powerful memoir “All Rivers Run to the Sea,” Holocaust survivor and Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel writes of his own crisis of faith and how a fateful Simchat Torah evening with the Lubavitcher rebbe helped him begin again.
“I stood at the entrance, in my raincoat and Basque beret. … Had anyone paid any attention to me, they would have thought I was an observer from the outside; an intruder, unable to comprehend the nature of Hasidic joy. But, luckily everyone was looking at the Rebbe.
“Suddenly the Rebbe saw me and beckoned me to approach. I pretended not to notice. The Rebbe motioned to me again. I didn’t budge. Then he called me by name. When I still didn’t move, powerful arms grabbed me and carried me over the heads of the crowd to the central table, depositing me like a package in front of the Rebbe. The Rebbe was smiling as he welcomed me.”
The rebbe asked him how they celebrate Simchat Torah in Vishnitz, where the Wiesel family came from. Wiesel told him that they say l’chaim, and the rebbe told him to say the Hebrew toast.
Together they said l’chaim. Then the rebbe told Wiesel he deserved a blessing. “Name it,” the rebbe said.
… “I wasn’t sure what to say. The Rebbe struck a solemn pose. ‘Would you like me to bless you so you can begin again? …. to believe again, to live again?’
…“ ‘Yes, Rebbe,’ I said. ‘Give me your blessing.’ ”
May we all be blessed to know that it’s never too late to begin again.
Rabbi Shlomo Zarchi is the spiritual leader of Orthodox Congregation Chevra Thilim in San Francisco. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.