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Jewish learning Chutzpah and Healing

By Heather Renetzky

Parashat Beha’alotcha (Numbers 8:1-12:16)

One of the side effects of being in rabbinical school for four years is that Yeshivish language makes its way into your everyday slang. I no longer ask if we’ve figured out the logistics of a trip, but if we can go over the tachlis details. I end sentences with phrases like “kah mashma lan” (Aramaic for, “It teaches us [something]”). The word “davka” is sprinkled a little too frequently into my sentences.

And if there’s a missed opportunity or a disappointment around a particular event or holiday, my solution is often a “sheni” (literally: a second) of some sort. Birthday plans ruined by a rainstorm? Celebrate a Birthday Sheni. Got Covid and missed out on Purim? Have a Purim Sheni.

This quirky expression of mine is actually just an applied derivative of Pesach Sheni. Pesach Sheni, the details of which are laid out in Parashat Beha’alotcha, offers an opportunity for Israelites who missed out on Passover the first time to bring their Pesach offering at a later date. As the parsha describes, anyone who can’t bring the Pesach sacrifice on the usual date—whether because they are ritually unclean from contact with a corpse, or because they’re on a long journey—can bring that sacrifice a month later instead.

I’ve been obsessed with this concept since I first learned of it in my Mekorot year at Hebrew College. Not because I’m such a fan of eating matzah but because Pesach Sheni feels like a radical repair born of a radical ask.

Numbers 9:6-8 describes how Pesach Sheni came to be:

וַיְהִי אֲנָשִׁים אֲשֶׁר הָיוּ טְמֵאִים לְנֶפֶשׁ אָדָם וְלֹא־יָכְלוּ לַעֲשֹׂת־הַפֶּסַח בַּיּוֹם הַהוּא וַיִּקְרְבוּ לִפְנֵי מֹשֶׁה וְלִפְנֵי אַהֲרֹן בַּיּוֹם הַהוּא׃
וַיֹּאמְרוּ הָאֲנָשִׁים הָהֵמָּה אֵלָיו אֲנַחְנוּ טְמֵאִים לְנֶפֶשׁ אָדָם לָמָּה נִגָּרַע לְבִלְתִּי הַקְרִיב אֶת־קָרְבַּן יְהֹוָה בְּמֹעֲדוֹ בְּתוֹךְ בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל׃
וַיֹּאמֶר אֲלֵהֶם מֹשֶׁה עִמְדוּ וְאֶשְׁמְעָה מַה־יְצַוֶּה יְהֹוָה לָכֶם׃

But there were some people who were unclean by reason of a corpse and could not offer the passover sacrifice on that day. Appearing that same day before Moses and Aaron, those people said to them, “Unclean though we are by reason of a corpse, why must we be debarred from presenting G!d’s offering at its set time with the rest of the Israelites?” Moses said to them, “Stand by, and let me hear what instructions G!d gives about you.”

The colloquial sound of the word “עִמְד֣וּ” translated as “stand by” in v. 9:8 has me imagining this exchange in modern parlance, with these ritually impure people saying, “Listen Moshe. We love the Jewish people. We love God. That should be pretty clear, what with us taking on the mitzvah of dealing with the dead. So what do you mean we don’t get to connect with God on Pesach?!?” and Moshe responding with a scratch of his chin, a quizzical look and finally, “Oh. Huh. Yeah. You have a point. Please stand by.”

In this exchange, the ritually impure people make a bold move. They go directly to Moshe to try to right the wrong they’ve experienced. They don’t mobilize the rest of the Israelites. They don’t make a complex case for why they feel what they feel. They just state their honest question: “Why have we been left out?” They go to Moshe, assuming good intent, and assuming that he will do something about this.

In response, Moshe, too, does something amazing. He assumes good intent, he accepts their inquiry, and he doesn’t question what they have to say. He doesn’t give excuses for the oversight The commentator Ibn Ezra remarks that when Moshe says “stand by,” he is telling them to stand at the opening of the Tent of Meeting, the place where Moshe talks to God. As Ibn Ezra illustrates, Moshe asks them to wait close at hand for a speedy reply. Rather than putting them off, Moshe immediately seeks out an answer and a solution.

I wish we lived in a world where this kind of asking and responding was the norm.

What if we had direct conversations with each other like Moshe has with these Israelites? What if the inquirer and the responder in such interactions assumed good intent? What if reparations were given rapidly and wholeheartedly? What if we didn’t wait for a total breakdown in communication to approach each other, but rather approached each other that same day, as in verse 8?

In this imagined world, tangible, culture-shifting change could happen. The exchange that takes place between Moshe and these self-advocates is powerful. It results in a Pesach Sheni that isn’t just an attempt to make them feel better, but is really, truly a second opportunity to celebrate Pesach. This isn’t a conciliatory pat on the head, but an equitable solution to a legitimate concern. As the Talmud tells us in Pesachim 95b:

The offering of the Paschal lamb on the first Pesa overrides Shabbat, and similarly, the offering of the Paschal lamb on the second Pesa overrides Shabbat. The first Pesa overrides ritual impurity, and similarly, the second Pesaḥ overrides ritual impurity. The first Pesaḥ requires waiting until morning to travel, the second Pesaḥ requires remaining until morning to travel.”

The people who were initially left out bring the same kind of sacrifice under the same kind of circumstances as their ritually ready counterparts did on Pesach Rishon. You might think that the standards would change, but they don’t. This single act of advocacy—and Moshe’s immediate response—alters the communal structure. Pesach Sheni becomes a built-in mechanism to make sure that everyone is included for every year moving forward.

Pesach Sheni provides an invitation for the spiritually distanced to go directly to the authority figures, to say, “Hey, I’m not sure what your intention is here, but I feel really left out.” It gives a reminder to those authority figures to respond with an acknowledgement of the oversight, a commitment to correct it, and a genuine implementation of a correction that isn’t a consolation prize but a true and speedily delivered tikkun. And it gives all of us permission to live into the possibility of a world where this kind of tikkun is available.

Heather Renetzky is a third-year Hebrew College rabbinical student. She is a firm believer in the healing power of deep listening, trees, and homemade chocolate chip cookies.

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