Turn It Again: Torah Wisdom for Today – Beha’alotcha 2024

Turn It Again: Torah Wisdom for Today

In Pirkei Avot, a book of maxims in the Mishnah, an ancient rabbi, Ben Bag-Bag said about Torah study, Hafokh bah, vaHafokh vah, dkhola bah.” Turn it over and over, for everything is in it. For two thousand years, thats what Jews have done. Here is another turning.

Parshat Beha’alotcha 2024

A Small Dot of Forgiveness: Reflections on Second Chances

There are only a handful of television shows that have lasted for generations. On the shortlist with “Guiding Light” and “The Tonight Show” is the quirky British science fiction series,

“Doctor Who.” For a show that debuted in 1963, there are undoubtedly numerous reasons to explain why it has remained so beloved. One explanation must include the fact that the show is all about second chances. The Doctor has a time machine, which literally allows him to revisit the past. The Doctor is also from a very human-like species, known as the Time Lords, who reincarnate after death, thus granting him not just a second chance, but multiple opportunities to try again.

Why do we cherish second chances so much? Clearly, they allow us to remain hopeful and optimistic. A second chance also offers us the opportunity for moral improvement while teaching us about persistence and resilience. Second chances can also strengthen both an individual’s and a society’s belief in the concept of justice, for often, the conditions that give rise to the need for a redo are beyond our control. In Parshat Beha’alot’cha, the Torah addresses this when it describes “second Pesach.”

“Speak to the Israelite people, saying: When any party—whether you or your posterity—who is defiled by a corpse or is on a long journey would offer a Passover sacrifice to YHVH, they shall offer it in the second month, on the fourteenth day of the month, at twilight. They shall eat it with unleavened bread and bitter herbs…But if any party who is pure and not on a journey refrains from offering the Passover sacrifice, that person shall be cut off from kin, for God’s offering was not presented at its set time; that person shall bear the guilt.”

Numbers 9:10-13 (The Contemporary Torah, JPS, 2006)

Ritual defilement can occur through no fault of one’s own; merely encountering a dead body on the side of the road would have rendered a person unfit to participate in the Biblical Passover ritual. Additionally, sometimes work obligations require us to travel at inconvenient times. The Torah recognizes this and provides people a second chance to observe Passover, which, after all, has been called the master story of the Jewish people.

What the English translation of “a long journey” can’t convey is that in the Hebrew, there is a small dot on the letter “hey.” Rashi explains that this unusual diacritical mark teaches that a person doesn’t actually need to be far away at all; even being a few meters away might still be sufficient for someone to be given a second chance.

Chizkuni, a 13th-century French commentator explains how this could be. “(Because of) that dot…we are to understand such people as being spiritually on a journey that had estranged them to Judaism and God.” There is something touching, compassionate, even revolutionary in this interpretation, for it grants a second chance not only to individuals who missed Passover through no fault of their own, but also to those felt spiritually or emotionally disconnected from the community. This profound reading overturns the literal meaning of the verse, which states that someone who is ritually pure and not on a journey will be cut off from God and the community.

Here’s the thing with second chances: we want them for ourselves, yet it can be difficult to offer the same opportunity to others. It’s not always easy to forgive someone who has deeply hurt us. Sometimes, we need time before we are ready to give the forgiveness we have been denying. Other times, it can be inappropriate to offer a second chance to someone who remains unrepentant or whose actions were particularly heinous.

In the 18th century, a wonderful Moroccan sage, Or HaChaim, recognized the complexity of second chances. Referring to a Talmudic debate about this, he wrote, “These three scholars cite the same verse (Bamidbar 9:13) to support their respective opinions. If the Torah had informed us about the penalty for deliberate non-observance…it would not have been possible for the three scholars to hold three different views on the subject.”

All of this possibility from a tiny dot. Life really does turn on a dime.