Florida recently enacted a “Second Chance” law, repealing a lifetime ban on voting for 1.4 million convicted felons released from prison. I thought about the impact on both individuals as well as society in finding ways of affirming the dignity of an individual and the strength of a society as we offer participation to a person who is otherwise excluded due to competing “engagements.” Our Jewish tradition explores this same tension in the context of building a religious community and holy nation.
Competing obligations, legal restrictions or physical challenges may keep us from participating in rituals. Sometimes that ritual is a spiritual marker, aligning us with family or community or tradition. When missing a salutary ritual, the individual may feel frustration leading to disillusionment and dissociation. This may be especially true where the rule’s application is exclusive rather than inclusive.
Here’s what we learn in Torah. In parshat Behaalotcha, Moses is challenged to consider when compliance with rules of Passover holiday observance can be reexamined. Several in the Israelite camp were unable to partake of the Pesach offering having been rendered unclean by contact with the dead (to that category, God will add those who are away on travel). Separated for seven days, those in a state of pending purification missed the opportunity to eat the Pesach offering that signified the beginning of our collective journey to liberation.
Some rituals are so time and date specific that the idea of celebrating at a later time or date makes little sense. The New Year is only celebrated on the first day of the year. Passover is slightly different.
The function of the Passover holiday is to acknowledge God as our redeemer from slavery. The Passover offering is an obligatory symbol and eating it is an essential element of the biblical instruction. Yes, the fourteenth of Nissan is the date for celebration. Torah even threatens that we will be cut off if Passover is not timely observed. Yet, the text also acknowledges that the date is not central to completion of the observance. Otherwise there would be no second chance offered.
Accordingly, God advised Moses that a new category be created, allowing for later observance. For those who missed the opportunity to fully celebrate Passover, a second Passover offering, or Pesach Sheni is presented, saying “Speak to the Israelite people, saying: When any of you or of your posterity who are defiled by a corpse or are on a long journey would offer a Passover sacrifice to the LORD, 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.” Numbers 9:10 – 11.
A healthy religious life may depend upon the second chance to fulfill spiritual obligations. In fact, there’s both a communal and personal benefit in offering an additional opportunity at completing a ritual observance.
With a second opportunity to fulfill a ritual experience, spiritual lives can be restored. There is also the psychosocial benefit of each person having the perception that they are both included and compliant. Proper participation conveys a sense of inclusion and the second chance offers the view that fairness is at hand. Building a just and fair religious community sometimes means offering a second chance. The lesson of the Pesach Sheni is that rules should aspire to include and not alienate members of the community.
The underpinning of the community structure is not the rules themselves but the Godliness we seek. Our commitment to expanding righteousness is reinforced by our participation in observances and rituals. Accordingly, the religious precepts need to themselves reflect righteousness or the system will be perceived as iniquitous. The community we build rests on that holy foundation and connects through the proper application of rules that life us higher.
Yet, not every missed ritual is met with the quittance of a second chance. To construct a caring and dutiful community, the goals of timely participation have to be encouraged. Without such organization, the civic structures shatter into egocentric shards. Therefore, the Pesach Sheni is only offered to those who were prohibited from participation when following a rule of competing value or when participation was impossible. As God instructed: “But if a man who is clean and not on a journey refrains from offering the Passover sacrifice, that person shall be cut off from his kin, for he did not present the LORD’s offering at its set time; that man shall bear his guilt.” Numbers 9:13. Flexibility has to have some limits for the sake of cohesiveness and collective holiness in society.
Just as “articulation” in the building trades is the joining together of the distinct parts of a structure, the rules of a civilization or religious group must be articulated in ways that connect people with common purpose. When those rules are too harsh, the individual disassociates from the collective. But when those rules are too lax, the individual’s desires quash the group goals.
Assembling a new nation out of a rag tag assemblage of former slaves required rules of behavior that directed hearts toward the creation of an idealized Israel. That perfect nation or spiritual community is yet to be fully constructed. In that endeavor, the lesson of the Pesach Sheni is that the structures of religious life serve a Higher purpose and must sometimes offer flexibility to accommodate those whose hearts yearn to serve. The determination of which rituals can be tweaked, will be an ongoing conversation between God, Torah, and people of faith.
R’ Evan J. Krame