“Why Should We Lose Out?”
Something is odd about this week’s Parsha – it’s not in the right place. We’re already three parshiyot into the book of Numbers: Bamidbar-Naso-Beha’alotecha; yet in this week’s reading, we have something that precedes the beginning of the book of Numbers.
The Book of Numbers begins with: “On the first day of the second month, in the second year following the exodus from the land of Egypt, God spoke to Moses in the wilderness of Sinai, in the Tent of Meeting, saying: Count the Jewish people…
In our parsha, Beha’alotecha, we have a mitzvah that was given even earlier:
“God spoke to Moses in the wilderness of Sinai at the beginning of the first month of the second year following the exodus from the land of Egypt, saying:
Let the Israelite people offer the Passover sacrifice at its set time:
you shall offer it on the fourteenth day of this month, at twilight, in accordance with all its rules and rites.”
If we were to sequentially tell the events that occurred to us in the desert, we should start the fourth book of the Torah with the command to bring the Pascal Sacrifice in the second year. From there, we’d go on to the census mentioned in the beginning of Numbers.
Why is the order reversed?
Rashi notices this problem and offers an answer:
We learn from here that there is no chronological order in the Torah! But why, indeed, did not Scripture open the Book with the Passover command? Because it implies something disparaging to Israel — that during all the forty years they were in the wilderness, they offered only this single Passover sacrifice.
The Lubavitcher Rebbe asks an obvious question: Why is this a disgrace to Israel that only one Pesach was celebrated in the desert all forty years? The command was only for the first year! Once the Jews entered the Land of Israel, it would become a yearly mitzvah. At this time in the desert, offering it was a particular instruction. Why are they criticized for not doing something they weren’t commanded to do?
The Rebbe suggests that the answer is in the following verses:
“There were men who were ritually unclean because of contact with the dead and therefore could not offer the Passover sacrifice on that day. So they approached Moses and Aaron and said, “We are ritually unclean because of contact with a dead person, but why should we lose out on bringing the offering of the Lord in its appointed time with all the children of Israel?” Moses replied to them, “Wait, and I will hear what the Lord instructs concerning you.”
Here were men who attended a friend’s or relative’s funeral before the 14th of the month of that year. Biblically, purification from the dead requires sprinkling the ashes of a Red Heifer and seven days of waiting. They couldn’t purify themselves before Passover, and therefore they were unable to bring the Pascal sacrifice. Yet, they didn’t accept their fate sitting down. Their famous words resonate throughout Jewish thought:
לָ֣מָּה נִגָּרַ֗ע לְבִלְתִּ֨י הַקְרִ֜יב אֶת־קָרְבַּ֤ן ה’ בְּמֹ֣עֲד֔וֹ בְּת֖וֹךְ בְּנֵ֥י יִש
“Why should we lose out and not be able to offer the sacrifice to God amidst the Jewish people?” Something happened to us beyond our control. Isn’t there something you can do to help us?
God then gave Moses the laws of Pesach Sheni; if someone could not bring the Pesach offering in the first month, they could offer it in the second.
This, says the Lubavitcher Rebbe, is the knock on the Children of Israel for only bringing the Pascal sacrifice once in the desert. Since they saw that these men successfully influenced God to give them a second chance, they also could have said,
לָ֣מָּה נִגָּרַ֗ע לְבִלְתִּ֨י הַקְרִ֜יב אֶת־קָרְבַּ֤ן
Why should we lose out? We’re stuck here for forty years; we might as well make the best of it. Let us bring the Passover sacrifice every year.
The lesson from Pesach Sheni is empowerment. Not only can we motivate God, but we also have the ability to impact and shape the nature of our Divine/religious relationship.
According to Rashi, this was our disgrace. We learned that we could influence God and mold our future, but we didn’t take the opportunity. Therefore, this story was relegated to the middle of a later parsha.
Nonetheless, the lesson is still applicable and just as empowering. If people can create new mitzvot, new ways of connecting with God, then we should also have that ability.
Meeting with the Neiman family, I learned the impetus behind Manetto Hill Jewish Center’s egalitarian stance. Jack ע’ה had two daughters, and he wanted them to be able to read from the Torah and lead the service like any Bar Mitzvah boy. In 1969 there wasn’t one Conservative synagogue on Long Island that was egalitarian. It was a very bold thing to do. But the Neimans and those other founding families, following the footsteps of the Torah, asked, “Why should our daughters lose out?” Since then, hundreds of girls taught and raised in Manetto Hill Jewish Center grew up feeling fully equal to their male counterparts.
Our parsha teaches us that we’re empowered to craft our Judaism with God. When the Jewish people don’t utilize this gift, they are criticized. MHJC took the bull by the horns in 1969. When the pandemic came, we transformed to meet the new needs. New needs always arise. Our parsha reminds us to be courageous and continuously evolve our relationship with God.