Oasis Songs: Musings from Rav D
Friday, June 9, 2023 / 20 Sivan 5783
Summary: The world is full of missed opportunities as well as second chances. This week’s Oasis Songs focuses on the latter.
Reading Time: Five minutes
A few years ago, some researchers at three Israeli universities (Bar Ilan, Tel Aviv, and Hebrew University of Jerusalem) turned their attention to the last dregs of some very stale beer. Specifically, they found living yeast in 5000-year-old clay vessels from Tel Es Gafi—the ancient site of Gat, where Goliath was born—the same giant that young David would defeat with his slingshot. The shape of the vessel was one commonly used to store beer or wine.
These scientists engaged in three activities of note: they were able to positively demonstrate that the yeast variety in this clay vessel was the direct and unchanged descendent of the yeast used to brew beer back in King David’s day; they were able to reproduce these yeasts in volume; and of especial interest to fans of Portland’s microbrewery culture, they were able to make new beer using this old strain. Apparently, it produced a far funkier product than the carefully lab-grown yeasts that contemporary bakers and brewers have access to, but hey, in the interests of science, these researchers were willing to suffer a little.
This sort of multi-dimensional story is fascinating: it opens a window onto ancient culture and foodways, demonstrates our growing scientific prowess, and has something to teach us about second chances. After all, who could have predicted that those ancient yeasts would have another opportunity to lend their collaborative hands to modern day fermentation.
Judaism has much to say about second chances, but before we explore that, it’s worthwhile to ask ourselves if and when we believe in second chances. I suspect most of us want to think that we believe in them, but sometimes we have lingering feelings that make us resistant to offer the grace of second chances to others or ourselves.
What does the Torah have to say about second chances? Intellectual honesty demands a bit of context because in next week’s parshah, Shelach, we could imagine that the Torah isn’t offering a second chance. The incident in question occurs after an unnamed man is caught gathering sticks on Shabbat. His punishment? The death penalty! This hardly seems like a second chance; even though we can understand and respect the boundaries of Shabbat, and acknowledge that if we don’t make Shabbat special, it won’t be—the punishment seems far more severe than the crime.
Particularly disturbing is verse 15:34 in which we read, “He was placed in custody, for it had not been specified what should be done to him.” In other words, this individual received the death penalty seemingly without being warned ahead of time that his actions were liable for capital punishment. If that is the case, it would seem to illustrate an unpalatable truth: in life, many of us never receive a first chance, let alone a second. Rashi, however, steps in to inform us that the only thing which had not been explained was what form the death penalty would take, but that everyone in those early Biblical days already understood the severity of desecrating the Sabbath. This was not, therefore, an issue of second chances.
We see, however, in this week’s parshah, Be-ha’alotcha, that second chances are built into the deepest part of our tradition. Specifically, we read this week about a rare holiday, Pesach Sheni, or Second Passover. This year, that occurred on May 22nd, but the reasoning behind the holiday sheds useful insight. Historically, someone who was ritually impure wasn’t allowed to eat ritually sanctified offerings; this meant that someone who had recently buried a loved one wouldn’t have been permitted to eat Korban Pesach, the roasted lamb that was an essential part of our ancient celebration of Passover. This exclusion felt unfair to our ancestors because it did not come about from any sort of moral wrong-doing, so they raised their concern to Moses, asking: “Impure though we are by reason of a corpse, why must we be debarred from presenting YHVH’s offering at its set time with the rest of the Israelites?”
The direct and respectful manner in which they brought forward their concern is a lesson in itself; for this reason, Moses up streams their question to God. As a result, the new holiday of Pesach Sheni was decreed. A second chance was created in real time.
It is probably not accidental that this arose over the celebration of Passover, which has been called the master story of the Jewish people. Second chances are all about freedom; their existence says that the past doesn’t need to define who we are today, or what we might become. Second chances argue that we view the world through a lens of abundance rather than scarcity. They argue that existence is more flexible and less brittle than we sometimes imagine.
Second chances also don’t erase the past, which is why we are sometimes miserly in extending them to others—we worry if we allow someone to “get away with it” that they or others will repeat the unacceptable behavior. Is that necessarily true? Most of us can probably recall when we were given a second chance, and as a result, can also reflect on our behavior. It’s accurate to note that pain is a great teacher, but we can also learn from grace and compassion just as effectively, so long as we are paying attention.
Ultimately, we can’t control how society will respond to our blunders, or if it will extend a second chance to us. Nor is there a guarantee that future scientists will rescue us from oblivion, making new wine from old skins, or new beer from ancient yeast like those Israeli scientists. It happens, but as the Talmud says, “We don’t rely on miracles.”
If we don’t rely on miracles, what can we rely on? Ourselves. Particularly when the world is being tightfisted with us, it is up to us to rise again, extending to ourselves the generosity of flexibility, resilience, and freedom that define the second chance. When we do that, we also increase the odds that the larger world will follow our example.
Shabbat Table Talk
- When have you denied someone a second chance? What prevented you from giving them another chance?
- Have you offered someone a second chance? How did it feel? In hindsight, would you have made the same decision? Why or why not?
- Was there a second chance you wanted for yourself but didn’t receive? How did you respond to that loss?
- What second chance have you been given that has most changed your life?
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