Today is a minor, minor holiday with a major, major meaning.
Today is Pesach Sheni, but you wouldn’t know it unless you looked at a Jewish calendar. It is a holiday so minor that there is no observance. (Well, there is a minor omission from the traditional weekday morning service, but that’s it.) Pesach Sheni means “Second Passover,” and it comes from a story in the Torah, in the Book of Numbers, when the Israelites are about to offer the annual Passover sacrifice having left Egypt the year before:
Moses instructed the Israelites to offer the Passover sacrifice; and they offered the Passover sacrifice in the first month, on the fourteenth day of the month, at twilight, in the wilderness of Sinai. Just as God had commanded Moses, so the Israelites did. But there were some householders who were impure by reason of a corpse and could not offer the Passover sacrifice on that day. Appearing that same day before Moses and Aaron, those householders said to them, “Impure 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?” Moses said to them, “Stand by, and let me hear what instructions God gives about you.” And God spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to the Israelite people, saying: When any party—whether you or your posterity—who is defiled by a corpse or is on a long journey would offer a Passover sacrifice to God they shall offer it in the second month, on the fourteenth day of the month, at twilight. They shall eat it with unleavened bread and bitter herbs, and they shall not leave any of it over until morning. They shall not break a bone of it. They shall offer it in strict accord with the law of the Passover sacrifice.Numbers 9:4-12
In this story, because people are unable to offer the Passover sacrifice at the normal time, they are given a second chance to do so a month later.
Now, of course, we don’t observe Passover with a ritual sacrifice. Since the destruction of the ancient Temple in Jerusalem and the ending of the sacrificial system, we observe Passover by gathering around a table with family and friends, telling the story, eating symbolic foods and celebrating. Thus, the necessity of Pesach Sheni is moot.
Yet the meaning persists.
The Torah speaks of Pesach Sheni being for someone who is ritually impure (normal after one comes into contact with a dead body) or one who is physically distant from the Temple—two ordinary conditions that would prevent one from participating in the sacrifice. Indeed, the medieval commentator Sforno (15c. Italy) imagines the people telling Moses, “we were only fulfilling the positive mitzvah of burying our loved ones, why should we be punished by not being able to perform another mitzvah?!” A fair question—why should one be punished for doing the right thing?
The rabbis in the Talmud interpret verse 10 and determine that really any reason one misses the sacrifice—even forgetting, or even willfully choosing not to do it—makes one eligible to do a “make up” and offer it on Pesach Sheni. There are also other commentators (Chizkuni, 13c) who take the phrase “long journey” to mean not that one is physically distant from the Temple, but spiritually distant from God and tradition and community.
Thus built in to the fabric of the Torah is this idea of second chances. That just because we miss an opportunity, or don’t act at a certain time, or something goes awry, or even if we purposefully step away, we should have the opportunity to try again, to do over, to reconnect. Whatever takes us away from the community, there is always a way back in. It is never too late to change, the ship has never sailed.
And because in the story Pesach Sheni is instituted not preemptively by God or Moses, but in response to a request–a demand–by individuals to be a part of the community, Pesach Sheni is ultimately about inclusion.
What is interesting is that even though this theme of “second chances” is universal, the idea of a second holiday is only given in the Torah in the context of Passover. No Second Yom Kippur, No Second Sukkot. Only Passover. Which says something about the importance of Passover to one’s Jewish identity. Passover is about community, shared experience, collective history and memory, oppression, liberation, trauma, healing, freedom, hope, and redemption. By instituting Pesach Sheni, our tradition is reminding us of the importance of these values (perhaps) above all else.
In the Torah, the punishment for not observing Passover is karet, or excommunication. One is exiled from the community for failing to observe the sacrifice. While this seems harsh and removed from our experience, we can understand it to mean that one who does not participate in communal observance and ritual separates themselves from the community. The strong desire of the folks in the Torah to take part in the observance of Passover points to this, they do not fear punishment (since they had an exemption for their initial participation and would not be penalized), but rather they fear alienation and separation. They do not want to be outside, they want to be inside. They want to be a part of the Jewish story. They want to be part of the community, they want to be included.
And with Pesach Sheni, the Torah is saying, they should be included. They must be included. Pesach Sheni is not just about giving individuals a “second chance” for participation, but it is also about giving communities a “second chance” for inclusivity.
Thanks for continuing the conversation!