Rabbi Michael Rosensweig
Rabbi Michael Rosensweig

Pesach Sheni: A Quest for Spiritual Opportunity and National Identity

Parshat Behalotechah records the extraordinary petition of a group that had been excluded from the mitzvah of korban Pesach due to ritual impurity (tumah) that they be afforded the opportunity to participate in this singular experience. The impassioned plea moves Moshe Rabbeinu to consult with Hashem, ultimately leading to the formulation of a new halachic institution, Pesach Sheni.

Why did the Torah choose to reveal these important halachot in this unusual manner?The Sifrei (cited also in Rashi 9:7) indicates that Pesach Sheni was part of the original halachic structure and might have been conveyed by Moshe along with the rest of the Torah, but was articulated as a response to the demands of this group to credit them for their halachic initiative and commend them for their spiritual ambition (megalgelin zechut al yedei zakai). Indeed, the Seforno cites the view that the eager quest for Pesach Sheni was one of four pivotal attainments that would have merited Klal Yisrael's immediate entry into Eretz Yisrael if not for the transgression of the meraglim

However, the urgency of the demand for participation in the Pesach is puzzling, as is the significance attached to this initiative.Undoubtedly, this was not the first group to be excluded from halachic performance when minimum standards could not be met.Moreover, the Or ha-Hayyim, Kli Yakar, and other commentators note that it is difficult to comprehend the argument of the temeim, as they acknowledged the requirement of ritual purity as a sine qua non of Pesach participation. Several suggestions are offered to explain their argument.Some posit that they were objecting to the fact that they could not be passively included in the Pesach of a tahor.Others theorize that they were offended by the irony that their disqualification resulted from an act of chesed such as the carrying of Yosef's remains or the burial of a meit mitzvah.None of these explanations satisfactorily justify the tone or content of their argument.The dramatic, forceful, insistent language associated with their plea (9:7) - "lamah nigara le-bilti hakriv et korban Hashem be-moado bethoch Benei Yisrael"- suggests a sense of frustration, loss and alienation that transcends the lost opportunity to perform even a notable mitzvah.

Perhaps it is precisely the wording and tone of this very powerful petition that provides a solution to the puzzle.The phrase "bethoch Benei Yisrael", apparently superfluous, conveys an awareness that korban Pesach binds individual Jews together as an integrated community and forges a special bond between Klal Yisrael and Hashem.The korban Pesach is a unique korban that defies easy classification.Ideally it is shared by a group (chaburah) appointed (minui) at the time of the shechitah.The Pesach is sometimes referred to as a korban tzibbur, although it is not a single korban of collective Klal Yisrael because it is offered en masse ("bekenufia"- Yoma 51a).There are compelling indications that Pesach reflects the communal covenant between Hashem and Klal Yisrael in a way that parallels the function of brit milah on an individual plane.In fact, milah is a prerequisite for korban Pesach.Among the positive commandments (esin), only the neglect of milah and korban Pesach are punished with karet.

Thus, the excluded group lamented not only their having forfeited an important mitzvah, but their inability to express their identification as members of the covenantal community of Klal Yisrael by means of this singular halachic vehicle.Their anguish was not meant as a legal argument as they were aware of the prerequisite of purity.The group simply could not abide the implications of their exclusion from the tzibbur even if there was no logical foundation to their plea.They turned to Moshe Rabbeinu to respectfully explore whether there was a halachic basis for their inclusion in korban Pesach.Indeed, it is possible that Moshe Rabbeinu found their passion and persistence to be more compelling than logic.He addressed the query to Hashem, confident that an answer would be forthcoming given the sincerity and piety of the questioners.According to the Sifrei, the institution of Pesach Sheni was always intended to enable an additional opportunity to participate in the korban Pesach, but it was only revealed in response to the initiative of the temeim.

We may now appreciate that this parshah of Pesach sheni was credited to the temeim whose sensitivity to the importance of korban Pesach constitutes an important contribution to the substance of the mitzvah.  Furthermore, it is appropriate that the passion and idealism reflected by this group would have enabled an early entrance into Eretz Yisrael. The commitment to the notion of a covenant of community (betoch Benei Yisrael) is particularly central to Jewish life in the national homeland. Rash, the Ramban ( 9:1) and other mefarshim discuss whether it was appropriate to offer a korban Pesach yearly in the dessert.They note that in Sefer Shemot it appears that korban Pesach was specifically designed for Eretz Yisrael, a condition that is consistent with its communal character.

Or ha-Hayyim is puzzled by the use of the singular form(9:6) - "vayehi anashim asher hayu temeim...' -that introduces the group that was the catalyst for Pesach sheni.Possibly the Torah already provides a clue as to the source of the group's frustration and their unwillingness to accept their halachic fate without at least exploring the alternatives with Moshe Rabbeinu.Absent the spiritual opportunity to bond as a chaburah-tzibbur by means of the korban Pesach, their sense of alienation precluded a group self-image.(Ironically, they could not bond even as a group that shared this sense of lost opportunity!)

The Or ha-Hayim also questions why the karet punishment for intentionally bypassing the mitzvah of Pesach is mentioned only after Pesach Sheni is introduced.Perhaps the theme of a covenant of community that parallels the individual covenant of the brit milah and warrants the punishment of karet is particularly accentuated by the quest of the temeim to participate in this pivotal mitzvah.The Torah's establishment of Pesach Sheni, affording a second opportunity to attain this crucial brit, constitutes the perfect context to introduce the karet penalty.[There is an additional important dimension to this perspective according to Rambam's view (Hilchot Korban Pesach ch. 5) that the temeim themselves could never actually incur karet even if they intentionally neglected the opportunity of Pesach Sheni.]

Finally, it is noteworthy that the Pesach Sheni section culminates (9:14) with a pasuk that includes the convert in the obligation of Pesach.It is conceivable that with this conclusion, the Torah again subtly but effectively conveys that korban Pesach reflects the brit between Hashem and Klal Yisrael.Although the convert as an individual cannot trace his personal history to the exodus from Egypt and the first korban Pesach, as a completely integrated member of Klal Yisrael he partakes fully in the historical memory and national brit of Pesach.Indeed, the Sifrei (see Rashi 9:14) finds it necessary to preclude a potential misconception based on this pasuk that a convert would have to bring a korban Pesach as part of his conversion process at any time during the year!The fact that korban Pesach reflects the singular bond between collective Klal Yisrael and Hashem justifies this perspective.

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