This week’s Torah reading, Parashat Beha’alotcha, contains an interesting command: “Speak to the Children of Israel, saying: If any man will become contaminated through a human corpse or on a distant road, whether you or your generations, he shall make the Pesach-offering for the Lord, in the second month, on the fourteenth day, in the afternoon, shall they make it; with matzah and bitter herbs shall they eat it. They shall not leave over from it until morning nor shall they break a bone of it; like all the decrees of the pesach-offering shall they make it.” (Numbers 9:10-12)
These verses provide the biblical reasoning behind the observance of a minor festival in Jewish tradition known as Pesach Sheni, literally, a “second Passover.” After two long seders, and eight days of eating unleavened bread, we might wonder why a person would want to observe Pesach if they had not done so at the appropriate moment in the calendar?
In the ancient Israelite community, Pesach was a holiday of extreme significance, a holiday where the Israelites celebrated their liberation from slavery in Egypt. And if we accept, as the opening of the book of Numbers tells us, that the Israelites are currently in their second year after leaving Egypt, then the observance of Pesach, and the awareness that the Israelites have regarding the miracles that they have witnessed, is far greater. The redemptive events of Pesach are fresh within their minds, and closer to their hearts. Anyone who happened to be travelling a great distance and was unable to offer his or her Pesach sacrifice, or, as the text suggests, a person who came in contact with a corpse and thus incurred a state of ritual impurity and was not permitted to offer the Pesach sacrifice, would likely feel as if they had missed out on the communal celebration of Pesach. Pesach Sheni had great significance in ancient times because it afforded people in the community an opportunity to participate in “another Passover,” so that they would not feel left out.
Nowadays, Pesach Sheni is somewhat of an afterthought. It is nestled in the calendar between Pesach and Shavuot, after Holocaust Remembrance Day, Israeli Memorial Day, and Israeli Independence Day. Liturgically, penitential prayers called Tachanun are not recited but there are no special readings or reflections and no seder is celebrated. Some people; however, do choose to eat a piece of matzah in acknowledgment of the day.
So if Pesach Sheni has become a “no-frills” observance in Jewish life, what might we still learn from it? Like our ancestors, there will always be people in our community, in our own families, and outside of our communities who are, for one reason or another, left out of communal and familial celebrations. Maybe we need to bring Pesach Sheni back into our consciousness. Our tradition reminds us that we need to respond to the needs of those who are less fortunate than ourselves. Perhaps Pesach Sheni, one small day in the calendar, can act as a reminder – teaching us that we must establish meaningful connections with one another and with new people too, that we need to share meals, building and nurturing our relationships. The ancient hope of Pesach Sheni becomes our contemporary mission — to ensure that the doors of our synagogue are opened wide enough so that everyone can participate together, and no one will feel left out.