A Second Chance for Second Chances

Sometimes, even second chances need second chances. About a month ago, on the 14th of Iyyar, I considered writing a blog post about Pesach Sheini and second chances.  I never actually wrote the post. This week I was asked to write a column for Parshat Behaalotcha—where Pesach Sheini is described in the Torah. A second chance at “second chances!”  I’m reaching for the text again, asking it to teach me something worth sharing.

The Book of Numbers tells the story of a group of men who could not observe Passover “in its appointed season,” as Moses commands.  They approached Moses and Aaron, worried that they would have to miss the Pesach sacrifice.

And those men said unto [Moses]: ‘We are unclean by the dead body of a man; why are we to be kept back, so as not to bring the offering of the LORD in its appointed season among the children of Israel?’  (Numbers 9:7)

Moses returned to the men with God’s permission to bring the Pesach sacrifice a month after the proper time.

‘If any man of you or of your generations shall be unclean by reason of a dead body, or be in a journey on a distant road, he shall keep the passover unto the LORD; in the second month on the fourteenth day at dusk they shall keep it.’ (Numbers 9:10-11)

If you were unable to make it the first time, God seems to be saying, try again. One month after Pesach, the 14th day of Iyyar, we are given a second chance.

I love what Jonathan Mark wrote in the Jewish Week about the text:

 ‘Death’ and ‘distant roads,’ rebbes explained, also refers to sadness and disconnection. Anyone who missed doing what he or she had to do, be it on a Passover or in other circumstances, essentially could go back in time if his or her yearning was true enough. Nothing broken was beyond repair. After all, time itself is an earthly concept. Heaven is not confined by the laws of time.

According to Mark, Pesach Sheini allows us out of the confines of time.  It frees us from the idea that we are stuck in a cycle of aging and moving through time, with no rest point, no do-overs.  Pesach Sheini allows us to go back and do over, once in a while.

And the do-over does more than allow us to go backwards in time. The second chance also lets us move forward with a new perspective, with a kinder, gentler view of ourselves and the things we may have done imperfectly.

What were these men doing when they missed Passover?  The ancient midrashic text Sifrei offers three possibilities: they were carrying Joseph’s bones, burying Aaron’s sons Nadav and Avihu, or caring for a met mitzvah (a corpse with no family to claim it).  In any of scenarios, one thing is clear; these men were involved in a sacred task.  Their excuse is entirely acceptable, their second chance merited.

Powerfully, the Sifrei offers these men the benefit of the doubt.  They must have had a good reason to miss the Pesach sacrifice, we can hear the rabbis explaining to themselves. They must have been doing something important.

What if we were to judge ourselves with that same approach?  To say to ourselves, “okay, you didn’t make it the first time, but there must have been a good reason.  You must have been involved in something important.  Can you let yourself off the hook and try again?”

Pesach Sheini offers us the opportunity to forgive ourselves for things we wish we had done differently, to give ourselves the benefit of the doubt, let ourselves off the hook, and try again. It’s a gift to those of us who may not get everything right on the first try.  And isn’t that, really, just about everyone?


Struggling with Discipline: A week of gevurah

Ask any one of my students, past or present: discipline has never been my strong suit.  I tend to laugh more than yell, compliment more than critique, and, to my embarrassment, give many more As than Bs.

So today, the 9th day of the Omer, is a spiritually challenging day.  The second week of the Omer mystically focuses on gevurah (limits or discipline), and the second day of the second week asks us to turn our attention to gevurah shebe’gevurah— limits within limits. No easy task!  I want to bring chesed (love) to the study of Torah, and I hate the idea of turning someone off from Jewish learning with an overzealous disciplinary approach.  And yet, studies show that children and teens need limits– and fewer compliments– to build esteem. So maybe this is a useful quality to consider.

Today, I read Abaye’s comment in the Talmud as if it is addressed to me:

If a scholar is loved by the townspeople, their love is not due to her superiority but to the fact that she does not rebuke them for neglecting spiritual matters. (Ketubot 105b)

For me to be an effective educator, I need to remember that my goal is not to be loved, but to help my students arrive at their own spiritual goals, even with occasionally difficult conversations. Tomorrow the tradition asks us to focus on the beauty inherent in these very boundaries and limits, and throughout the week, I’ll be reflecting on how we might use gevurah in our teaching, our parenting, and in our lives, in general.  Join the conversation:  post your thoughts below.  How will you be working with gevurah this week?

Gnut to shevach: At least we’re not where we used to be!

There must have been a really good evolutionary purpose to negative thinking.  Back in hunting and gathering times, it probably made sense to look for trouble, even on beautiful, sunny days.  You never knew when some predator would pop out on the savannah, ready to pounce and attack.  I’m sure that kind of fear and worry used to be really beneficial to Homo Erectus… but the modern human might do well to move on.

Negativity catches us unawares, even when all is well.  All winter long, we long for a sunny day, but by the second day of spring, we forget how much we wanted it and fill our minds with new concerns.  Come July, we’ll be complaining about the heat.  As our lives–and attention spans– move forward, we’re quick to look for the next problem, without stopping to reflect upon how good things actually are.

It’s true at a national and communal level, too.  We can spend our time wringing our hands about the situation in Israel– and at times, we must, perhaps– but we forget that for 2000 years the ONLY thing we prayed for was to be returned to Zion.  As the popular prayer goes, we may not be where we want to be, but let’s not forget: we are certainly not where we used to be.

The rabbis got this, intuitively, when they planned for our seder discussions.  Putting “v’higadta l’vincha” (you shall tell your children) into practical terms, they told us exactly HOW we should be telling the story of our people on Passover night. “Matchil b’gnut u’msayem b’shevach.” We start with the bad and end with the good.  Rav and Shmuel disagreed about what, exactly, the bad was; was it that we were slaves, or that we were idol worshippers?  Either way, we are taught, we must tell both sides of the story, even in the simplest of terms.  It once was bad, and now it’s good. Now let’s give thanks.

In an article about the origins of the seder, Professor David Golinkin shows that this was actually a Roman technique in creating a powerful storyline.

According to the Mishnah (10:4), the father at the Seder “begins with disgrace and concludes with praise”. This, too, was a Roman technique. Quintillian (30-100 C.E.) says: “[It is good in a eulogy to]… have ennobled a humble origin by the glory of his achievements…at times weakness may contribute largely to our admiration” (Stein, p. 37).

Starting with gnut— starting with the worst part of the story– helps us to appreciate how far we’ve come.  As Quintillian knew, “weakness contributes to admiration,” and recognizing the difficult in our own histories will guarantee a sense of gratitude in the moment.

This Passover, let’s tell our story, bad to good. Transforming negativity into gratitude takes practice and work, and seder night can help us. Of course, our world still needs to be redeemed in so many ways. Enslavement is all around us, both literally and spiritually. But for a moment, let’s stop and give thanks. Where has our story shifted?  Where have we found freedom and grace from something that was troubling us?  When we go from Gnut to shevach, the blessings in our lives suddenly come into focus.  We will have reason to lift our glasses and sing: Dayenu!  Thank you, God, for the miracles that abound.  Chag Sameach.

Our role in the story– a Purim lesson

I’ll never forget the moment I learned that amazing line from the book of Esther.  I was in Talmud class at JTS Rabbinical School, and (surprise!) my classmates and I were struggling to stay focused.  Our professor stopped the class, and he recited the line which Mordechai said to Esther when he was encouraging her to rise above her own fears and save her people.

כִּי אִם-הַחֲרֵשׁ תַּחֲרִישִׁי, בָּעֵת הַזֹּאת–רֶוַח וְהַצָּלָה יַעֲמוֹד לַיְּהוּדִים מִמָּקוֹם אַחֵר, וְאַתְּ וּבֵית-אָבִיךְ תֹּאבֵדוּ; וּמִי יוֹדֵעַ–אִם-לְעֵת כָּזֹאת, הִגַּעַתְּ לַמַּלְכוּת

If you are completely silent at this moment, relief and deliverance will come to the Jews from somewhere else, but you and your family will perish;  and who knows?  Perhaps it is for this moment that you have arrived at the royal palace?

Our professor pointed this verse directly at us.  “Listen, folks,” I remember his message. “The Torah will survive this generation, with you or without you.  The question is:  do you want to be a part of it?”

I loved that verse, and it still comforts me today.  The Jewish people will be just fine. It’s good to know I don’t have to hang the survival of the entire Jewish people on any one class or group of students. When students say they don’t feel like studying or following the tradition, I say to myself or even to them:  “no big deal. The Jewish people will survive, no matter what.”

But it is Mordechai’s challenge to Esther which is far scarier.  Sure, the Jewish people will survive– and that is certainly comforting– but the real question is, what is my role in the process?  Why have I been brought to this “royal palace” in my own life?  What am I meant to do with this very moment?

Mordechai throws the gauntlet down for each of us: what are we doing with the privileges we have been given?  What is our mission in this one opportunity at life?  Where will we fit into this story?

The problem with a challenge like this one is that too often we may feel like dropping the ball.  Maybe we don’t know what we are meant to do, and we find Mordechai’s challenge overwhelming.  Or worse– we DO know, and we decide we just can’t handle living up to what we might hope for ourselves.

But another verse in this week’s liturgical readings warns us against thinking we don’t have it in us.

This past Shabbat in shul, I sat next to List College Dean Shuly Schwartz, who pointed out her father’s favorite line in the Haftarah for Shabbat Zachor.  Evidently, Rabbi Mordecai Rubin, z”l, loved the moment when the prophet Samuel spoke to the failing King Saul.  As soon as I looked at the line more closely, I saw what was so special about this line.  For Samuel, Saul’s biggest problem– and the reason he could not remain king– was his own self-image.

 וַיֹּאמֶר שְׁמוּאֵל–הֲלוֹא אִם-קָטֹן אַתָּה בְּעֵינֶיךָ, רֹאשׁ שִׁבְטֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל אָתָּה; וַיִּמְשָׁחֲךָ יְהוָה לְמֶלֶךְ, עַל-יִשְׂרָאֵל

Samuel said:  You may be small in your own eyes, but are you not the head of the tribes of Israel?  God has anointed you king over Israel.  (I Samuel 15:17)

Samuel makes clear that God’s problem with Saul is that Saul’s own ego is getting in his way. Each of us has been chosen for something, but when we fail to step up to it, we are in trouble. Being small in our own eyes is in itself the sin.

Mordechai reminds us, the Jewish people will be just fine, bayamim hahem uvazman hazeh, in those days as well as in our time. But what will our role be in the story? Each of us, like Saul and Esther before us, has been anointed for something. If we don’t play the role chosen for us, history–the history of our people, the history of the world– will certainly continue.  But we shy away at our own risk.   וּמִי יוֹדֵעַ?  Who knows?  This could be the very moment we have waited for.

Daily Daf Differently (and a Chanukkah wish!)

Sorry, folks, I’ve been off my blogging game.  I’ve been hard at work on another project, my Daily Daf Talmud podcasts. Daily Daf Differently is a really cool podcast where listeners study the Daf Yomi, the daily page of Talmud, with a variety of liberal rabbis and teachers. A page a day is a bit too much for me these days (maybe when I retire!), but I’m hoping to study a few pages from every tractate, and so I’m teaching a few of the podcasts.  Right now I’m preparing some pages from the tractate Yevamot, which is known as one of the hardest tractates in the Babylonian Talmud, and man, is it challenging me.  So any extra brain space I might have is currently in use: I’m trying to figure out what these rabbis are saying!  Stay tuned for another post in January. As soon as this project’s done, I hope to come back to my writing.

If you’d like to hear one, here’s the link to my podcast of one of my all-time favorite lessons about Chanukkah, from Shabbat 22.  The rabbis discuss whether the real mitzvah of Chanukkah is to light the candles or simply to place the Chanukkah menorah in the window. The Chassidic text Kedushat Levi teaches that these two possibilities reflect different spiritual moments in a Jew’s religious experience. Sometimes the spiritual fire is alive in us, and sometimes it’s not.  I love how honest the original Chassidim were about the ebb and flow of our spiritual and emotional lives.  The Kedushat Levi reads the rabbinic debate as a message that sometimes it’s enough just to show up, just to place our menorah and to have the faith that the kindling– the revival of spiritual light– will come.  It seems to me that’s the whole message of the holiday itself.  Light will come, even in the darkest moments.  May each of us experience a renewed faith and a renewed spiritual energy as we light our candles in the coming week.  See you in January!

Daily Daf Differently podcast, Shabbat 22

Shivim Panim Latorah: Understanding our Humanity

Remember that time when you were planning that really important thing, and then all of a sudden you couldn’t remember what you were trying to do? You lost all motivation and all you wanted to do was sleep?  Or eat?

What happened to your strong resolve? What happened to your commitment?

Every so often, for many of us, the body beats the mind. We get so tired, so hungry, so “done,” that we become blinded by our physical need, and our best laid plans fall away.  It’s what cravings specialists refer to as getting to “HALT:” Hungry Angry Lonely or Tired.

Ask anyone who knows me well;  when I’m in HALT, I can (every once in a while) be (a bit of) a drama queen.  I will admit that on occasion I have said things I don’t mean: “I’m so hungry I could DIE.”  And if you asked me to give away the most important thing in my life at a moment when I feel like I need to sleep, I might actually be willing to negotiate a price.

So it’s hard for me not to empathize with Esav in this week’s parsha.  He arrives at the end of a long day of hunting, and his quiet brother Jacob is making a lentil soup. Sell me some of that soup, he says, ki ayef anochi,  “because I am tired.”  Jacob agrees, on the condition that Esav sell his birthright, and Esav agrees.  Hineh anochi holeich lamut, v’lamah zeh li bechorah?  “I’m about to die. Why do I need the birthright?” (Genesis 25:30-32)  The rabbinic tradition wants to vilify him, to make him a thoughtless jerk who doesn’t know the value of important things in his life. And they point to his animalistic nature, in the way that he asks for the soup, the way that he eats it. But what if Esav is not an animal at all, but just deeply, utterly human? What if he has just hit the end of his rope at the end of a long day? Perhaps the Torah is encouraging us to hear the humanity in Esav, to understand that he is simply a victim of his cravings, of his exhaustion, and of his humanness. Evidently the Torah understood the concept of HALT. The Torah understood that human beings do stupid things when their defenses are down.

Even more, one interpretation suggests that Esav had probably learned this kind of language from his own mother.  As Robert Alter suggests, Esav’s words v’lamah zeh li bechorah (“why do I need the birthright?”) call to mind Rebecca’s words when she was struggling to have a child:  lamah zeh ‘anochi (“why me?”).  (See Robert Alter’s Genesis, p. 129.)  This beautiful connection pushes the point that Esav may have had a model in his own home of this kind of self-pity, this kind of giving up. He may not know any other way to be.  Shouldn’t we have a bit more compassion for him?

The rabbis teach that there are shivim panim latorah, literally, 70 faces of Torah. Our trick as careful readers of text, then, is to find ourselves in each of the figures of our story. We have a responsibility to look at each Biblical character from shivim panim, through 70 faces, and to see each one as utterly human.

Remember that time when you lost all your focus and gave up for a moment?  When you did the dumbest thing ever, just because you were tired or hungry, or you didn’t know a different way?  Most of us can remember at least one of those moments. And we must hold them in our minds when we meet Esav, or for that matter, anyone whose actions we may not understand. There are at least 70 faces to Torah. Look in the mirror; one of them is yours.