A Second Chance – Parashat Emor, Friday, May 8, 2020

In sports, we call them do-overs. In school, we have make-up days. Whatever name we give them them, they are times when you get a second chance to be part of something you’ve missed, or to improve something you’ve messed up.

Judaism has that too. Today is a unique day on our calendar that we call Pesach Sheini – a “second Passover.” It marks the day when somebody who was unable to participate in the Passover offerings at the proper time can do so one month later.

Let’s recall that, in the book of Exodus, God tells the Israelites in the second year of their wilderness trek to bring the offering of a lamb on the afternoon of the fourteenth day of Nissan and to eat it that evening, roasted over an open fire and eaten with matzah and bitter herbs, just as our ancestors did on the night they left Egypt.

The overwhelming importance of Passover is reiterated in this week’s Torah portion, Emor. God lays out to Moses the entire calendar of the year, starting with Shabbat and including the three pilgrimage festivals and the High Holy Days. The dates are very specific: the seventh day of the week for Shabbat, for example. The first day of the seventh month for the day in which the shofar is sounded, which would be Rosh Hashanah. The tenth day of the seventh month for Yom Kippur.

The command to observe these festivals on these specific days is emphasized, not once but three times, when God calls them “Mo’adei Adonai” – set times of the Eternal that the people must celebrate as mikra-ei kodesh, as sacred occasions.

And yet – and yet there is one exception to this inviolable rule. And that is Passover.

But there were some men,” says the Torah in the Book of Numbers, “who were unclean by reason of [coming into contact with] a corpse and could not offer the passover sacrifice on that day. Appearing that same day before Moses and Aaron, those men said to them, “’Unclean though we are by reason of a corpse, why must we be debarred from presenting the LORD’s offering at its set time with the rest of the Israelites?’”[1]

So God decreed that they got a do-over, a second chance, one month later – which falls today.

The exception to the rule proves, not that Passover is not as important as these other days – but that it’s more important. Because every faithful Israelite should have the opportunity to offer the paschal sacrifice and re-enact the seminal event in Israelite history that fashioned us as a people, saved and unified by God’s redemption.

We know how important Passover is – because we kind of missed it this year. It was the first event we had to cancel at the Temple, because it meant a lot of people sitting together, enjoying a catered meal and passing around the wine and the matzah.

It was the hardest thing we had to do. Compared to missing our seder together, it was relatively easy – under these extraordinary circumstances – to take our Shabbat worship and our opportunities for study virtual. And the turnout for all of our Zoom events has proved it was the right thing to do.

I know some of you shared a zoom seder this year with your loved ones, so that at least you could see each other. But we know it didn’t feel the same. There’s something about Passover that is unique. And that’s why our ancestors made accommodations.

We’re now looking to the near future, the next few months, to figure out what we’re going to do about more of these moadei Adonai, these “set times of the Eternal,” including summertime Shabbat and our Days of Awe. My great friend and colleague Rabbi Jeff Salkin, who — as he readily acknowledges — is hardly a radical about such things, has proposed moving the High Holy Days to Hanukkah, with some modifications to the liturgy. We know, of course, that Hanukkah is actually Sukkot moved back to the month of Kislev – which allowed the Maccabees a communal eight-day celebration when they wrested control of the Temple back from the Hellenistic Syrians.

I’m not sure we’re ready to be that radical here in Altoona, Pennsylvania. But rest assured we’re looking seriously at our options to choose the one that will bring us together in the safest way possible.

Safety, at this time of massive displacement, is paramount. So I do want to point out one really interesting detail of this week’s Torah portion. In the middle of the detailed description of the annual festival calendar, right in between the description of Shavuot and Rosh Hashanah, the Torah takes an astonishing detour with this one verse:

And when you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap all the way to the edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest; you shall leave them for the poor and the stranger: I am the Eternal your God.”

Now, it may be this isn’t really an interruption at all. The Shavuot festival takes place at the time of the late spring harvest. So maybe the reminder to leave the gleanings in the field is connected directly to Shavuot. But it may also be, as the midrash teaches, that when we share our bounty with the most needy among us, it as if we offered it up to God. It’s our way of providing safety to people who are most vulnerable.

Leaving the gleanings in the fields – rather than requiring the poor and the needy to come personally begging to us – is God’s way of reminding us that all we have comes, in the end, from divine providence, and that any of us could be in a much worse position than we are. So when we leave food on one of the Porch Pantries in town, where people anonymously drop off what they can or come to take what they need, we are following exactly what God commands us here. It’s the same when we drop off groceries at one of the makeshift food pantries in town, or when a local farm or dairy donates food at a pop-up local distribution site: produce or milk that would otherwise be wasted.

This community – and our congregation – have come up with amazingly generous and creative ways to share. We are giving our neighbors the second chance they need – a do-over for something that was not of their own making.

If the midrash is correct, that means that, when we donate to others, it’s as though we are making offerings to God. Which is both a mitzvah and a blessing.

Ken yehi ratson. Be this God’s will and our own. As we say together: Amen.


©2020 Audrey R. Korotkin

[1] Numbers 9:6-7.

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