Letter from America: The Second Passover – a minor holiday with a major message

The moon will be full again this Saturday night, as it was a month ago when we gathered around tables to tell our story of freedom and redemption on Passover.

May 4, 2015 09:03
4 minute read.

A Passover Seder for new immigrants takes place in Mevaseret Zion in 2011.. (photo credit: REUTERS)


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The moon will be full again this Saturday night, as it was a month ago when we gathered around tables to tell our story of freedom and redemption on Passover. The full moon this motzei Shabbat will mark the beginning of Pesach Sheni, the Second Passover. It is a very minor holiday, with a beautiful and healthy message for all of us. But first we might wonder: why the need for a second Passover? Wasn’t the seder and all the pre-cleaning beforehand enough? The mitzvah of Pesach Sheni, and it is considered a positive mitzvah according to Maimonides, is taught to us by Moses in the ninth chapter of Sefer Bemidbar, the Book of Numbers.

There we read about a group of individuals who were ritually unclean and therefore could not partake of the Passover sacrifice, but who desired to do so. Moses tells them that he will ask God what to do. God’s answer is not only in the affirmative, i.e. that ritually impure individuals can eat of the sacrifice with matzah and bitter herbs a month later on the full moon, but God also magnanimously expands who is included in that second chance. God also tells Moses that if someone was on “a long journey,” they could also partake of the Passover sacrifice a month later.

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It is a remarkable statement. When we think of Passover we think of the most strict of holidays in terms of observance. In an almost neurotic frenzy we spend weeks cleaning our homes to fulfill the words, “to remove chametz from your houses.”

As we know, that is an impossible task to achieve. And that is precisely the point, and so the night before Pesach we acknowledge that by saying, “Any chametz that may still be in the house, which I have or have not seen, which I have or have not removed, shall be as if it does not exist, and as the dust of the earth, keafra deara.” An extraordinary proclamation that removes the unrealistic quest and goal that we are charged to carry out. It is a liberating moment the night before seder.

Too often we think of religion as instilling guilt in our lives, and that misses a very important point. We say “slach lanu,” forgive us, three times a day in the evening, morning and afternoon Amidah. We say it not to beat ourselves down, but to rise up and improve who we are. The tradition says that we should not say a prayer unless we mean it. So if we are asking for forgiveness three times a day the tradition recognizes that we are not perfect throughout the day.

We say “slach lanu” as a moment to check in with ourselves, examine what we have done, but then not get stuck there with a sense of guilt.

Rather we are given permission to move on, if you will, as Rabbi Daniel Kamesar taught, by burning it up and letting it go.

Even prayer itself we acknowledge as an impossible task to completely fulfill. In the Nishmat section of the Siddur, which also appears at the end of the Passover Haggadah, we say, “Could song fill our mouth as water fills the sea and could joy flood our tongue like countless waves; Could our lips utter praise as limitless as the sky...Never could we fully state our gratitude for one ten-thousandth of the lasting love that is Your precious blessing.”

And yet we pray, and yet we clean our homes for Passover. Judaism sets the highest of standards for how we should lead our lives, while at the same time recognizing that we are also limited by our very human qualities.

We are charged, we are pushed, to give our fullest and best effort, and so that compassionate forgiveness is not there to let us off easily; it is there so we can regain our footing and move on.

Pesach Sheni reminds us, a month after Passover, that the walk of freedom and redemption sometimes requires a second chance. Since the destruction of the Temple there is very little done to observe Pesach Sheni. Tachanun is not recited and it is customary to eat a piece of matzah.

Here in Vermont, on Pesach Sheni we make matzah brei with local grated cheddar cheese and sprinkled with sweet maple syrup.

The author, a rabbi, teaches at Bennington College.

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