The “Second Chance” Off Ramp
Torah Portion: Numbers 8:1-12:16
Haftarah Portion: Zechariah 2:14-4:7
As an ISJL team, we rack up countless miles on our nation's highways, crisscrossing the South in order to visit many of our smaller - but no less valued - Jewish communities. And every once in a while, for some reason or another, we may miss our appointed exit. Maybe it was bad signage; maybe it was poor navigational efforts by our GPS units; or maybe it was - dare I say - even a human foible, as we often become the passionate lead-singers of whatever band is playing on the radio.
No matter the reason, this missed opportunity often proves rather costly in terms of time, as we are forced to drive on, waiting and waiting until the next exit to turn around. In these moments, some may offer a prayer to God, beseeching the Omnipotent One to manifest a new off-ramp. Sure, there are obviously more important things for which to pray. Yet, it's fun to imagine that in the 5773rd year after God created the Heaven and the earth, the sky and the sea, the sun, the moon and the stars, God created an off-ramp and called it 'Second Chance.' There was evening and there was morning, a 2,107,145th day."[i]
As comical as this may appear, it is not without precedent. In this portion of B'ha-alotechathere was a group of Israelites who too missed an important off-ramp, one which led to the holiday of Passover. They claimed, while on their journey through the wilderness, that they were distracted while in performance of another mitzvah (such as caring for the dead) or had 'zoned-out' while along the long journey. And not wanting to walk on, in order to wait and wait for the next off-ramp to Passover a year later, they offered a prayer to God.
They beseeched God, through Moses, for a second chance. And, miraculously, God granted it to them, stating: "If any person shall become defiled by a corpse or shall be on a distant road, [and thus missed the first Passover], that person shall be permitted to make a Passover offering [exactly one month later] in the second month on the 14th day of the month, at twilight." This unusual permit, known by the later rabbis as Pesach Sheini (the 'Second Passover') shall last one day, as God ordered the individuals to eat this alternative Passover sacrifice "with unleavened bread and bitter herbs, leaving nothing over for morning." (Numbers 9:10-12)
To many, this alternative is not only unusual, it's shocking as "it illustrates a capacity [of God or the Israelite leadership] to modify time-bound obligation."[ii] And not for the whole community, as if the First Passover had been rained out, creating a justifiable need for a make-up game. No, this leniency for a Second Passover is even more exceptional as it was made on account of only a few; teaching - writes Biblical commentator Jacob Milgrom - that "to the individual, life will often offer a second chance for fulfillment that may have been missed when the opportunity first presented itself."[iii]
But that is where agreement on this interpretation ends, as there are those who maintain that a second chance should only be granted to those who justifiably deserve it. A second chance, they portend, is only for those who have a good excuse for missing the first like: "my dog ate my matzah," "I must have left the shank bone in my other pants," or - would you believe - "a funny thing happened to me on the way to the Temple." These excuses are clearly in jest. Nonetheless, there are those who would require substantial evidence, verifying - beyond reproach - one's innocence before determining whether one was truly deserving of a second chance.
Yet, rationally, we understand that there are few - if any - among us who could say that he/she is all together pure, that he/she has not erred, that he/she is without blame. Even so, there is still an impetus within our human hearts to judge. I believe we do so mostly out of fear. We fear having our hearts broken, our good natures taken advantage of, our power to forgive returned upon us in spite. And, so, we judge. We judge who is worthy and who is not, who we believe should be given a second chance and who should not, hoping, praying that this assessment guarantees our safety.
However, in life there are no guarantees and in Judaism there is only one who has the power to judge: God. Thus, there are others - like Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn (1880-1950) - who maintain that "even if a person has failed to fulfill a certain aspect of his or her mission in life, whether accidentally or even deliberately, there should always be a Second Passover, [a second chance] to make good on what he or she has missed out on."[iv] In other words, this perspective asserts that no one is ever lost simply because they missed their off-ramp. A second chance should always be presented to them as an opportunity to turn around. For example:
There once was a young man on the cusp of childhood and adulthood. For years this young man was engaged in a dangerous activity. He was a shop-lifter, a thief - though not of the likes of Robin Hood, who stole from the rich in order to give to the needy. In fact, this young man didn't care what he stole nor did he care from whom he stole. He merely loved the thrill of getting away.
Until one day, when he did not. Having made a clean grab earlier in the day from a certain retail shop, this young man attempted to make a repeat performance. With countless trinkets in his pockets, he began to walk nonchalantly out the door. Then, thump! The heavy hand of a security guard dug into his shoulder, preventing a get-away.
As the store manager began to dial the number for the local law-enforcement, the young man began to cry, offering tons of varied excuses for his behavior. "There is no excuse you could give," said the store manager, "that I could believe; no promise I can trust; no oath I could rely upon." And yet, with those words, the store manager put down the phone.
"I don't understand," said the young man through his tears. "Aren't you going to call the cops?"
"No. I'm not. I'm giving you a second chance. But," added the store manager with great intensity, "mark my words, never come this way again!"
And the young man never did. In fact, right there and then he began a process of turning his life around. He became an Eagle Scout. He went on to serve in the military. And, eventually he became a rabbi, dedicating his life to giving to people rather than taking from them.
Recognizing and utilizing the second chances we get in life to correct the past and transform our futures is indeed living up to our human potential (as demonstrated in the story). But, presenting the opportunity for a second chance to others - as it is taught in this week's Torah portion - is living up to our Divine potential. As Morgan Freeman rhetorically questioned in the movie, Evan Almighty, "Do you think if someone prays for patience, God gives them patience, or does God give them the opportunity to be patient? If someone prays for courage, does God give them courage, or does God give them opportunities to be courageous? If someone prays for their family to be closer, do you think God zaps them with warm fuzzy feelings, or does God give them opportunities to love each other?"[v] In other words, it is within our human nature to plead for second chances, but it is within our Divine potential to grant them. May we continue, then, to live up to this Divine potential, opening up the off-ramps of second chances to others... not merely to those we believe deserve it, but equally as important to those we believe do not.
Shabbat Shalom! May this be a Sabbath of Peace for all of us, especially those recovering from recent, devastating storms in Oklahoma