Beha’alotcha: Second chances
Despite its bright beginnings with the description of the construction and kindling of the Temple’s menorah, Parshat Beha’alotcha carries in its narrative a host of moments of disappointment and setback. Among them is the episode of “kivrot hata’avah,” where the people are sadly taken over by a bout of nostalgia for the past as they remember it. They long for the fleshpots of Egypt. This is preceded by the news of Yitro’s decision to return to his post in Midian and not become a part of the nascent Jewish people. His leaderships skills, experience, intellect, and stature, would have been a boon to the struggling Israelites, and he would have provided much-needed support and counsel to his son-in-law, Moshe. And to add insult to injury, Moshe’s own kin, sister Miriam and brother Aharon, later are discovered disparaging their brother’s choice of a mate. Social comity does not flow well and the emotional tension seems to cut across all lines.
And yet despite the moments of ingratitude against God and family, as Beha’alotcha opens bright light shines through the darkness filled by the people’s backsliding and murmuring. There is one notable exception to its otherwise cantankerous tones.
At the beginning of Chapter 9, we hear of a plea made by those people who had been denied the opportunity to participate in the original Pesach offering and ritual, either because they had been ritually impure or on a distant road and out of reach of a Pesach celebration site. Recognizing the definitional nature of the Paschal offering, which was a transformative communal experience, and carried the severe penalty of karet (excision) if it were not fulfilled, this group spoke up, demanding an opportunity to make it up. Their words are as plaintive as they are convincing. “Lamah ni-gara” – “why should we be diminished” on account of our earlier justifiable inability to join with the others in this defining moment of national and spiritual identity. They refused to allow the experience to pass with no redress, no way to correct the situation that already had precluded their participation with the rest of the people.
And their request is heard and accepted, in what is known as “Pesach Sheni,” a day that remains on the Hebrew calendar. Following the Sifrei, Rashi comments that those people were privileged to be the instrument for introducing the mitzvah of Pesach Sheni, and their protest is an example of how determined people with the right intentions can realize positive outcomes. There was a real need to empower a group that had been marginalized and a solution was found that enfranchised them.
In a world in which zero tolerance is all too often used indiscriminately to cover so many cases of error and misstep, Pesach then is a bright spot on the biblical landscape. It illuminates the need to provide second chances where logically indicated. Rulebooks can easily make a miss as great as a mile. Our tradition — most notably in this case, and in other places as well — reminds us that there is a way back into the group. It is interesting to note that an exam make-up provision, called “moed bet,” literally meaning “second time,” is built into the Israeli university system. But it is more than a term; it is a generative theme about how we allow people to grow and gain from their missed opportunities.
As we see, a sedra that in so many ways seems to lack for gracious moments in fact includes this signature moment. It is where our tradition decides to afford a second chance for people who once had been out of and away from the mix. It gives them a second try at connecting with what was then and remains today, through the experience of the Pesach seder, perhaps Judaism’s greatest gateway experience and road back to belonging.