By: Jonathan Feldstein
A month ago, the Jewish people celebrated one of the biblical festivals commanded in the Torah. In Numbers 9:1, just a year after the Exodus from Egypt: “The Lord spoke to Moses in the desert of Sinai in the first month of the second year after they came out of Egypt. He said, Have the Israelites celebrate the Passover at the appointed time. Celebrate it at the appointed time, at twilight on the fourteenth day of this month, in accordance with all its rules and regulations.” (Numbers 9:1-3)
Like many other instances where Moses instructed the Jewish people to do something on God’s behalf, they observed their first Passover in freedom, celebrating their liberation from slavery that they had experienced just a year earlier.
However, not all the Jewish people were able to participate. Some were ritually unclean, having been in contact with a corpse, and therefore were prevented from bringing the Passover offering “in accordance with all its rules and regulations.” Whether the impurity came from burying someone who died along the way, or carrying Joseph’s bones, they didn’t want to be left out because being left out would also mean being cut off. They appealed to Moses, asking why they should be excluded.
“But some of them could not celebrate the Passover on that day because they were ceremonially unclean on account of a dead body. So they came to Moses and Aaron that same day and said to Moses, “We have become unclean because of a dead body, but why should we be kept from presenting the Lord’s offering with the other Israelites at the appointed time?” (Numbers 9:6-7)
Basically, Moses responded saying, “Good question, let me ask the Boss.” “Moses answered them, Wait until I find out what the Lord commands concerning you.” (Numbers 9:8)
God answered, as He always does. “Then the Lord said to Moses, Tell the Israelites: ‘When any of you or your descendants are unclean because of a dead body or are away on a journey, they are still to celebrate the Lord’s Passover, but they are to do it on the fourteenth day of the second month at twilight. They are to eat the lamb, together with unleavened bread and bitter herbs. They must not leave any of it till morning or break any of its bones. When they celebrate the Passover, they must follow all the regulations. But if anyone who is ceremonially clean and not on a journey fails to celebrate the Passover, they must be cut off from their people for not presenting the Lord’s offering at the appointed time.” (Numbers 9:9-13)
God saw in the appeal through Moses that His people wanted to observe the commandments, to be part of the community, and certainly not to be cut off. They wanted to bring the offering, but were not eligible to do so. Today, someone might be unable to participate in a broader community activity or obligation like this to be in isolation due to Coronavirus. So, God came up with a plan so all could participate. He said that any person who had become impure, or had been on a distant journey, on the 14th of the first month, Nisan, not only can but should make Passover and bring an offering, on the 14th day of the second month, Elul. A second Passover, in Hebrew, Pesach sheni.
God saw that the people were anxious to serve him and not be cut off. He also realized that those who were ineligible to bring the offering were ineligible because they had been in touch with a dead body. It was circumstantial. In most cases, being ineligible involved incredible selfless acts, either burying a loved one, or the privilege of carrying Joseph’s bones for reburial. In Judaism this is known as a chesed shel emet, a true righteous deed because there’s no “payback” for helping a dead person. All the more so, God realized that these people couldn’t be excluded, but they must be included.
God added the idea of people being away on a long journey on the 14th of Nisan and unable to participate, a concept hard to imagine with 2 million Jews transversing the desert together. Nobody was taking a weekend excursion on their own. In his vision for the future, God also set up criteria so that everyone could observe Passover.
For most Jews today, whose digestive systems have just gotten back to normal after a week of only matzah, the idea of observing a second Passover might be frightful. But in the event that something came up that made it so we couldn’t participate on the appointed day, God made it possible for all to be included no matter what prevented them from doing so.
The people who appealed to Moses didn’t only care about being part of the community and being cut off, they were paying attention to every detail. They found a loophole in Moses’ teaching them, perhaps one God had intended, so they could show their commitment. This is similar to the case of the daughters of Zelophehad who also appealed to Moses about the laws of inheritance. God not only saw that their hearts were pure, but they were right. (Numbers 36:1-10)
We are all facing many challenges today that have been put before us. Some involve isolation, work, health of our loved ones, etc. The idea of observing a second Passover is God’s gift of a do-over. Whether this is a deliberate test, or a circumstantial one, we each have the opportunity to rise to the occasion and show Him that we want to be part of the bigger community, and affirm our obligations to Him and others. Despite the challenges, God gives us abundant opportunities to interact together, embrace one another, be part of the covenant, and be in relationship with Him.
The Jewish people appealed to God in the desert and He answered favorably. How can you step up, to be counted as part of the wider community, to worship Him, despite the challenges we face? With or without matzah.