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A Little Pesach

Be'halot'cha (Numbers 8-12 )

by Rabbi Ari Kahn

An entire year had passed, an eventful year to say the least. The year began with the word of God ― and the gift of time: the Israelites were told about Pesach ― the Paschal Offering, and the Exodus which would follow. Indeed, soon the people were on their way to the Promised Land, through the sea and into the desert, arriving at a very particular mountain. During this year, they had experienced glorious highs and humiliating lows: receiving the Torah, versus serving a molten calf; building and consecrating the Mishkan, marred by the deaths of Nadav and Avihu.

Now they stand, one year after the first Pesach, and are commanded to do it again. This time, the sacrifice and surrounding ritual will be observed, not in anticipation of leaving Egypt, but as a national commemoration of the Exodus.

And God spoke to Moshe in the wilderness of Sinai, in the first month of the second year after they came out of the land of Egypt, saying, Let the People of Israel also keep the Pesach at its appointed season. On the fourteenth day of this month, at evening you shall keep it in its appointed season; according to all its rites, and according to all its ceremonies, shall you keep it. And Moshe spoke to the People of Israel, that they should keep the Pesach. And they kept the Pesach on the fourteenth day of the first month at evening in the wilderness of Sinai; according to all that God commanded Moshe, so did the People of Israel. (Bamidbar 9:1-5)

There was one group of people who felt disenfranchised from the national celebration: Those who were ritually impure and could not participate felt they were excluded from the Jewish People.

And there were certain men, who had been defiled by contact with a dead body, and they could not keep the Pesach on that day; and they came before Moshe and before Aharon on that day; and those men said to him, 'We are defiled by the dead body of a man; Why are we kept back, so that we may not offer an offering to God in its appointed season among the People of Israel? (Bamidbar 9:6-7)

Their feelings are understandable: this defining practice, which in a sense created the nation, separated between life and death. It separated between the Israelites who were headed for freedom, and all other residents of Egypt whose homes were not painted with the blood of the paschal lamb and therefore suffered death. On this second Pesach, the blood on the doorposts was not to be repeated, but the paschal offering itself would be repeated, and those who could not participate felt as if they were separated from the rest of the nation.

Ritual impurity caused by proximity to a dead body is a natural, inevitable part of life. Any thriving, bustling community will have births and, unavoidably, will also have deaths.1 Those who deal with the dead perform a mitzva of unparalleled chesed.2 The members of the group who prepare the body for burial, as well as those who tend to the burial itself, are, to this very day, known as the chevra kadisha ― the "holy society". Why should the performance of any mitzva, all the more so such an important mitzva, cause the practitioners to suffer religiously by being excluded from the paschal service?3 

A Second, Second Pesach

Moshe feels that the question is a valid one and asks God what should be done:

And Moshe said to them, Wait, and I will hear what God will command concerning you. (Bamidbar 9:8)

God's answer is extraordinary; in fact, it flies in the face of everything we know about the laws of ritual offerings. Under normal circumstances, the timeline for each offering is precise; if the prescribed time of day for a particular offering is missed, the opportunity is forfeited.4 Nonetheless, God allows a second opportunity to bring the paschal offering:

And God spoke to Moshe, saying: Speak to the People of Israel, saying: If any man of you or of your posterity shall be unclean because of a dead body, or is on a journey far away, he shall still keep the Pesach to God. The fourteenth day of the second month at evening they shall keep it, and eat it with unleavened bread and bitter herbs. They shall leave none of it to the morning, nor break any bone of it; according to all the ordinances of the Pesach they shall keep it. But the man who is clean, and is not on a journey, and refrains from keeping the Pesach, that same soul shall be cut off from among his people; because he brought not the offering of God in its appointed season, that man shall bear his sin. (Bamidbar 9:9-13)

The normal rules of sacrificial worship are ignored; the people would receive a second chance. Our question is obvious: Why in this case were the rules changed? What is it about this situation that allowed a second chance? Perhaps a closer look at the reason for the ritual impurity which impeded their ability to participate in the Pesach at its appointed time will help us unravel this mystery.

Earlier in the text, we learned that they were defiled due to a death in the camp. The Talmud, in an attempt to clarify the details of the case, offers three different explanations for the ritual impurity. The context of this Talmudic discussion is the principle of osek b'mitzva patur m'mitzva: a person actively involved in the performance of one mitzvah is absolved from the performance of a second, concurrent mitzva:

But is the law that he who is engaged in one religious duty is free from any other deduced from here? Is it not deduced from elsewhere, As it has been taught: And there were certain men who were unclean by the dead body of a man, etc. Who were these men? They were those who bore the coffin of Yosef, so R. Jose the Galilean. R. Akiva said, They were Mishael and Elzaphan who were occupied with [the remains of] Nadav and Avihu.

R. Isaac said, If they were those who bore the coffin of Yosef, they had time to cleanse themselves [before Pesach,] and if they were Mishael and Elzaphan they could [also] have cleansed themselves [before Pesach]. But it was those who were occupied with a met mitzvah, the seventh day [of whose purification] coincided with the eve of Pesach, as it is said, 'They could not keep the Pesach on that day'; on 'that' day they could not keep the Pesach, but on the morrow they could? (Talmud Bavli Sukka 25a-b)

While the Talmud gravitates toward the opinion that those who died were anonymous people, it is the opinion of Rabbi Yose, that those entrusted with carrying the remains of Yosef approached Moshe, which has captured the imagination of later authorities. The Midrash states unequivocally that the creation of Pesach Sheni was precipitated by a singular event, and not by the performance of some pedestrian deed: It was the remains of Yosef that generated this extraordinary law.

And The Children Of Israel Went Up Armed (Shmot 13:18): They went up armed against all attacks. And Moshe Took The Bones Of Yosef (ib. 19): Concerning him does it say: The wise in heart will take good deeds (Mishlei 10:8), for at the time when the whole of Israel were busily occupied in collecting gold and silver, Moshe was occupied with collecting the bones of Yosef, as it says: AND MOSHE TOOK THE BONES OF YOSEF:

During the entire forty years' wanderings in the wilderness, the bones of Yosef traveled with them. God had said to him [Yosef]: 'Because you said: "I will feed you" to your brothers, I assure you that when you are dead, your bones will journey with them for forty years in the wilderness,' as it says: 'But there were certain men, who were unclean by the dead body of a man (Bamidbar 9:6). The word 'man' refers to Yosef, for it says: The tent which He had made to dwell among men (Tehilim 78:60), and then: 'Moreover He abhorred the tent of Yosef (ib. 67) For the sake of thy bones shall they celebrate the lesser Pesach. (Midrash Rabba Shmot 20:19)

The Midrash connects Pesach Sheni with Yosef. To reward him for one specific deed performed in his lifetime, Yosef merited liberation from Egypt along with all of the People of Israel: Yosef took care of his brothers in Egypt, took responsibility for them and sustained them until the end of his life. To fully appreciate this gesture, we must appreciate the context: After Yaakov's death, Yosef and the brothers travel to the Land of Israel for their father's burial. When they return to Egypt, the brothers are apparently frightened that Yosef will finally take his revenge for the suffering they caused him. They take preemptive action, and offer to be slaves to Yosef. Surely, only one who fears a much harsher fate would make such a suggestion. Sadly, the brothers feared punishment of a much greater magnitude for their sin; they were afraid that Yosef would have them put to death.

And Yosef returned to Egypt, he, and his brothers, and all who went up with him to bury his father, after he had buried his father. And when Yosef's brothers saw that their father was dead, they said, Yosef will perhaps hate us, and will certainly pay us back for all the evil which we did to him. And they sent a messenger to Yosef, saying, 'Your father did command before he died, saying, So shall you say to Yosef, Forgive, I beg you now, the trespass of your brothers, and their sin; for they did to you evil; and now, we beg you, forgive the trespass of the servants of the God of your father.'

And Yosef wept when they spoke to him. And his brothers also went and fell down before his face; and they said, 'Behold, we are your servants.' And Yosef said to them, 'Fear not; for am I in the place of God? 20. But as for you, you thought evil against me; but God meant it to good, to bring to pass, as it is this day, to save many people. Now therefore do not fear; I will nourish you, and your little ones.' And he comforted them, and spoke kindly to them. (Bereishit 50:14-21)

A Second Chance

Yosef's response to their offer was not just non-belligerence or non-violence. He offered to care for them, to feed them. He offered to treat them like brothers, like family. Their fear was rooted in the past; years earlier, before Yosef became a viceroy in Egypt, they wished to cast him out of the family, an act that would have cut him out of the Jewish People. Now, with his father dead and buried, Yosef could have his sweet revenge. Yet instead of intimidation and violence, Yosef offers a gesture of love. Ironically, had he accepted their offer, he would have been separated from his family once again, this time by his own hand. But Yosef offers to feed and care for them; he wants to be with them. Eventually, he is rewarded in kind: he remains with his family, with his People, and when they are liberated from Egypt, he, too, is liberated.5

This may help us understand why Yosef is connected with Pesach Sheni: When those who could not bring the offering complained to Moshe, they described their plight not only in terms of their inability to fulfill the commandment of Pesach. They were concerned specifically with their inability to fulfill the commandment among the rest of the People:

Why are we kept back, so that we may not offer an offering to the Lord in his appointed season among the People of Israel? (Bamidbar 9:7)

Non-performance of the Pesach offering is related to separation from the People of Israel:

But the man who is clean, and is not in a journey, and refrains from keeping the Pesach, that same soul shall be cut off from among his people; because he brought not the offering of God in its appointed season, that man shall bear his sin. (Bamidbar 9:13)

The punishment is described as karet, which means to be spiritually "cut off", separated from the Jewish people. This punishment is usually reserved for those who actively committed a severe crime. In this instance, karet is a punishment for passivity, for failure to act, for inaction ― for missing the opportunity to eat from the Paschal Lamb. The only other punishment of karet meted for nonperformance of a positive commandment is non-performance of circumcision. These two commandments define our Peoplehood, and non-performance is a bill of divorce from the Jewish nation. Indeed, karet may be seen more as a result of passivity regarding these defining rituals, the outcome of failing to perform an act which defines the Jewish People, rather than as a punishment per se.

Yosef was cast out of the House of Israel; years later, after their father's death, he had an opportunity to cast his brothers into the pit of slavery, to cast them out of the familyof Yaakov/Israel. Instead, he chose the moral high road. He chose love. He chose peace; he chose camaraderie. He chose family.

Yosef's heroic gesture resulted in a second chance, another attempt to create unity, to build a nation. Liberating Yosef's remains and including his presence in their historic journey back to Israel was more than a symbolic gesture meant to remind and inspire the nation. Yosef himself was rewarded; he would no longer be an outcast. Yosef's remains would travel with them on their journey. He would finally return home, to the land of his fathers, to his place among his brethren.

Nonetheless, his remains, like those of any other Jew, generated impurity. Any and all who came in contact with his remains became ritually impure. And yet, on a philosophical level, it was nearly inconceivable that those who tended to Yosef should be made to feel separated from the community; this would be an almost absurd contradiction of Yosef's very essence. And so, in a beautiful gesture of poetic justice, God gave them a second chance; the normal rules of sacrifices would be suspended.

Yosef's benevolence is mirrored by God's benevolence. A new holiday representing second chances would be established,6 a holiday well-suited to Yosef.7

The enslavement in Egypt was the direct result of the sale of Yosef. The callous meal eaten as Yosef languished in the pit required a tikun. The brothers broke bread as Yosef screamed. They were impervious to his screams, for they had deemed him no longer part of the Jewish People. It was a meal which brought the brothers together, with one exception: they were united in their dastardly deed. And so, when the Jews leave Egypt they are commanded to have a meal ― a meal which heals and liberates by bringing the family together.

Speak to all the Congregation of Israel, saying, In the tenth day of this month they shall take every man a lamb, according to the house of their fathers, a lamb for a house; and if the household is too little for the lamb, let him and his neighbor next to his house take it according to the number of the souls; according to every man's eating shall you make your count for the lamb. (Shmot 12:3-4)

Bring the family together; invite the neighbors if you can. The offering must be eaten with matzah; perhaps bread, which symbolized haughtiness ― and that horrific meal eaten within earshot of the pit ― was deemed unacceptable. In fact, all bread and bread products must be exorcized from the home on Pesach. However Pesach Sheni has no such requirement: bread and matzah can reside together in one home.8 This is truly an extraordinary holiday: a celebration of unity,9 and a living testimonial of God's love for His People ― a holiday of second chances.10


1. See Comments of Ibn Ezra on Bamidbar 9:6.

2. See Rashi on Bereishit 47:29.

3. In the words of the Seforno on Bamidbar 9:7, "Why should our mitzva cause a sin ― by non-compliance with the mitzva of Pesach?

4. The principle is known as avar zmano batel korbano. See Tosfot Brachot 26a SV Ibaya Lihu. Although our daily prayers commemorate the sacrifices brought each day in the Mishkan, they were originally instituted by our Forefathers and reflected their personal connection with God. It is this aspect that allows us to pray even if the proper time has passed. However musaf (the additional prayer said on holidays) cannot be made up, for this is a commemoration of the additional offering brought on holidays.

5. The Midrash (Shmot Rabbah 20:19) stresses that in order for the sale of Yosef to have full and final closure, he will need to be returned to the place from whence he was taken: Shechem. Similarly, it was from Shechem that the brothers of Yosef had stolen him and had sold him: and when he was about to die, he adjured them: ' My brothers! you have stolen me from Shechem while I was alive, I pray you, return my bones to Shechem.' For this reason does it say: 'And the bones of Yosef, which the children of Israel brought up out of Egypt, buried they in Shechem' (Yehoshua 24:32).

6. According to the Zohar (Bamidbar 152b) the spiritual feeling of Pesach Sheni can be felt for seven days: There is a commandment to bring a Pesach sheni for those who were unable to fulfill the mitzvah in the proper time, or were impure with some other impurity. If the secret of Pesach is the secret of the faith which Israel entered, this rules (only) in the month of Nisan, then is the time for joy, how can someone who was impure or missed the (proper) time bring the offering in the second month ― the (correct) time has passed? The answer is that the community of Israel is endowed with the crown in the month of Nisan, the crown is not removed for thirty days. And for these thirty days the matron sits with her crown and all the hosts rejoice. And whoever wishes to see the matron can see. The crier then goes and announces whomever cannot see the matron can come and look before the gates are closed. When does the crier go out? On the fourteenth of the second month and from that day the gates are opened for seven more days, from that day onward the gates are closed, this is the Pesach Sheni.

7. See Shem Mishmuel Bahalotcha 5672.

8. See Rashi Bamidbar 9:10.

9. Yosef represents unity see Sfat Emet Miketz 5652.

10. See Shem Mishmuel Vayikra ― Chodesh 5674.

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