It is a conversation I will remember forever. We were in the midst of basic tank training, enjoying a brief respite from the grueling pace of maneuvers and marches. The tanks were encamped opposite a training area where each tank would practice maneuvers; while each tank, one at a time, went through the maneuver, the rest of the tanks and crews waited their turn, giving us all a little down time.
Uri Faraj was not actually in the armored corps; he was in the armaments corps (Cheil Chimush) and was part of the chulyah unit attached to each tank battalion whose job it was to be on call for fixing things in the tanks that went beyond the expertise of a normal tank crew. He liked hanging out on our tank because one of the guys had a tape radio and Uri loved the music.
On this particular afternoon, Uri had finally gotten around to asking me a question that had been on his mind for a while: “What on earth are you doing here? If I had grown up in America, the last place on earth I would be is stuck in the middle of nowhere waiting for a tank maneuver!”
We got into a deep discussion about Zionism and somehow, the discussion veered to religion and mitzvoth, and eventually the topic of Shabbat came up.
My response was that as much as I could try and explain the concept of Shabbat and what I found beautiful about a Friday night Shabbat experience, it was something that could not be explained.
“Why don’t you join us for Shabbat?” I asked. After some hesitation, he decided it might be fun, and agreed to come.
Little did I know that this was the last conversation I would ever have with Uri Faraj. In fact, it was the last conversation Uri ever had.
A few moments later he left our tank and the spring mechanism on a LAU ant-tank missile he was handling was activated, taking off half of Uri’s skull. He died six months later, never having regained consciousness.
While that last conversation offered some measure of comfort to his parents whom I got to meet in the hospital, I have long wondered what that Shabbat might have been for Uri Faraj; he may well have been on the verge of a second chance, the opportunity to re-explore the tradition of his family, which he thought had left behind. But that opportunity eluded him. Or did it?
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This week’s portion of Beha’alotcha contains a fascinating mitzvah which represents, more than any other part of the Jewish experience, the opportunity for a second chance we so often wish we had: the story of Pesach Sheni.
The Jewish people, celebrating the first anniversary of their Exodus from Egypt, are commanded to offer up their first Paschal sacrifice as a free people. (Bamidbar 9:1-5) A small group asks Moshes: “We are impure by virtue of contact with a corpse. Why should we miss out and not offer up the (Paschal) sacrifice of G-d in its appropriate time amongst the people of Israel?” (9:6-7)
G-d’s response came quickly: from this request is born the mitzvah of Pesach Sheni, the Second Pesach.
Essentially, any individual who has become impure or who is unavoidably distant from the Temple thus missing the opportunity to offer up the Paschal lamb, can still make Pesach, one month later on the 14th day of Iyar.
This mitzvah seems to represent the idea that there is always a second chance, and yet it poses questions.
First, why does this opportunity for a second chance revolve specifically around Pesach? We do not see a chance to make up a missed Sukkah experience, or for that matter Shabbat; what is so special about Pesach? And why did a group that was impure have to ask, in order for the Jewish people to receive this mitzvah?
The Talmud (Sukkah 25a) suggests that these men were carrying the coffin of Joseph, who before his death made his brothers swear that when the Jewish people left Egypt they would take his bones home with them for burial in Israel. Is there a connection between the story of Joseph and this particular mitzvah?
And then there’s this: The Torah specifically mentions (9:14) that the mitzvah of Pesach Sheni applies as well to a new convert who “missed” the opportunity to offer the Paschal sacrifice. But why would this mitzvah apply to such a person, who was not even Jewish on the first Passover?
It is interesting to note that the language in the Talmud is ger she’nitgayer, a convert who converted. (Pesachim 93a; Maimonides Hilchot Korban Pesach 5:7) This is a strange usage, as one would expect it to say “goy she’nitgayer,” a non-Jew who converted.
Why does it say a convert who converted? Before he converted he was not yet a convert, so it should say a non-Jew who converted? If he has not yet converted why is he already referred to as a convert?
The Chidah (Rav Chaim David Azulai) explains that even before his conversion he is already called a convert, because the spark of holiness already burns deep within his soul. His conversion will ultimately be the result of an intense desire that burned within him long before he successfully converted.
And this, perhaps, is the essence of what Pesach Sheni is all about. It is no accident that this mitzvah comes about as a result of the query of a group of people who are technically exempt from the Paschal lamb. This desire to be a part of something bigger, this refusal to accept the given situation, is what creates this mitzvah in the first place.
Which is what Pesach is all about. The ultimate redemption from Egypt, and the entire Pesach story, begins with the Jewish people, after 200 years of exile in Egypt, finally crying out to G-d (Shemot 2:23), as a result of which they are given a second chance (after the debacle of selling Joseph into slavery that got the Jews stuck in Egypt in the first place).
But before the Jews can be redeemed, they have to really want to be redeemed.
Nothing in this world exists without a will for it to exist. Everything we have built, and everything we receive from Hashem, all comes into being because someone somewhere wants it badly enough. If no one wanted something it simply would not exist.
Thus anything that does not yet exist in the world is simply not wanted enough.
We do not yet have a third Beit HaMikdash simply because we don’t want it enough. If the entire Jewish people (even the majority of the Jewish people) wanted something badly enough, no force on earth would stand in the way of Hashem’s promise to fulfill such a desire. Indeed, this is the secret of the modern State of Israel.
The convert referred to in our parsha with regards to Pesach Sheni so wants to be included among the Jewish people, that he is already “missing” an opportunity on Pesach, even though not yet obligated to offer the sacrifice. And this mitzvah of Pesach Sheni, is brought about by the intense desire of a small group of Jews who so wanted to be a part of the Jewish people’s experience, they couldn’t bear the thought of not being included in the festivities and offerings of Pesach itself.
And, this as well may be the reason this mitzvah came about through a group of Jews invalidated for the paschal lamb by virtue of their having been occupied with bringing home the bones of Joseph (Yosef).
IIf ever there was an individual who represented the opportunity of a second chance, it was Yosef, who, having been on top of the world, the apple of his father’s eye and recipient of a special striped (multi-colored) cloak, suddenly finds himself a slave in the darkest hell on earth at the time, the lowest level of the caste system of ancient Egypt.
But Yosef did not let go of who he was, and never gives up on becoming who he was meant to be.
Two hundred years after throwing their brother into a pit and sitting down to lunch while his screams rang in their ears (Bereishit 37:24-25), the Jewish people, having experienced slavery first hand, are given a second chance.
What do we, as a people, really want? Do we really want a Jewish state? Do we really want a place we can call home? We may pay lip service to an idea, but if we want it so much we would fill the skies with El Al planes taking us home to the land of Israel.
I will always wonder whether something changed in Uri Faraj, in his last conscious moments here on earth; perhaps in some small way, a glimmer of what he might want was enough to change who he really was.
We would do well to listen carefully to the lesson taught us so long ago by a group of individuals who may have technically been immersed in death (carrying the bones of Joseph), but who so desired to be a part of the living choice of the Pesach experience that they “forced” G-d’s hand, as it were, to grant them a second chance at creating the Pesach experience, a month later.
It was this same group, over 3,000 thousand years later, surrounded by the same death — the mounds of bodies in the liberated camps, and the barbed wire fences of the DP camps — who so desired to be a part of a living choice of the creation of a Jewish State, that they also “forced” G-d’s hand, as it were, to grant them a second chance at creating a home for the Jewish people, after 2,000 years of exile.
A version of this column appeared in 2014.