Barry Lerer
Senior Rabbi, Central Synagogue London

Coronavirus: An Opportunity for Second Chances

This past weekend was the 76th anniversary of the largest seaborne invasion in history. The Normandy landings known as D-Day turned the tide of World War 2 and laid the foundations for an allied victory on the Western Front, bringing an end to the war less than a year later.

Unlike last year’s 75th anniversary, when many tens of thousands came to the Northern French beaches to cheer the remaining war veterans, this year, due to the pandemic, less than 20 people were in attendance. The occasion was marked at the Bayeux Cemetery in Normandy with a socially-distanced ceremony at the graves of fallen war heroes, as veterans and their families were forced to honour the fallen from afar. This dwindling number of ageing veterans are not sure when and if they will get a chance to see their comrades again.

In this weeks’ portion Beha’alotecha we read about Pesach Sheni (Second Pesach). What is Pesach Sheni exactly?

A year after the Exodus from Egypt and coming close to Pesach, a group of the Children of Israel approached Moses and Aaron. They explained that they were unable to keep the mitzvah of the Korban Pesach (Paschal lamb) on the upcoming holiday because they were spiritually unclean from contact with a dead body. They did not want to be denied the opportunity of performing this important mitzvah and came to Moses and Aaron to seek out a potential solution.

Moses speaks to God, who tells him that anyone unable to keep the mitzvah of the Korban Pesach because they were either spiritually impure from contact with a corpse or simply because they were on a distant journey, would have another chance to bring the Paschal Lamb exactly one month later.

This is unbelievable. Because there is no other occasion in the Torah, in which you have a second opportunity to perform a mitzvah. If for whatever reason,  you don’t hear the Shofar on Rosh Hashana, you don’t get another chance to make up for it a month later! Similarly, if you don’t sit in a Succah on Succot you don’t get another opportunity 30 days later. So what is different about Pesach? What makes it so special?

The Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson,  explains Pesach is the birth of the Jewish nation. You can miss many things in life, you can miss a bus, an exam, a meeting, or even a flight and make them up later. But if you miss being born, you have really missed the boat.

God, therefore, wanted every person, to have a second chance at Pesach, teaching that it truly is never too late to correct our deficiencies, even the most fundamental ones.

Eli Beer, the President and Founder of United Hatzalah in Israel, recently returned to Israel from the United States where he was hospitalized after having contracted the Covid-19 Coronavirus. Eli had been intubated and sedated for more than 30 days and completely missed the whole of Pesach.

When Eli awoke from his induced coma, (a miraculous event in of itself after being on a ventilator for so long) one of the first questions he asked his doctors was: “When is Pesach?” His medical team was, at first, afraid to tell him the news that Pesach had come and gone and he had missed it entirely. “How can a Jew miss Pesach?” Eli said in an interview with the press after recuperating somewhat in the hospital before flying home to Israel.

But, a month later on the onset of the 14th day of Iyar, Eli got his chance to celebrate the holiday on Pesach Sheni, a holiday not often celebrated, back home in Israel with his family. He said “This is my favorite holiday of the year. There is so much meaning behind it and it is incredibly important to celebrate it with the entire family. I was depressed when I found out that I had missed it. My family held the seder with an empty chair and a photo of me at the table in the hopes that I would return. Now that I have, I am going to have a seder with my family. Just a month late.”

What Pesach Sheni teaches us is that sometimes we do get second chances. There is no better example of that, then Eli Beer himself. The Mitzvah of Pesach, especially Seder night is so important that over 3000 years ago, God offered the children of Israel a second chance.  This year, God gave Eli Beer a second chance.

And in some ways, we have all been given a second chance.

With the world being on lockdown over the past couple of months, it has been hard to differentiate one day of the week from another. In many ways, it has felt like every day is the same, as we are living through our own Groundhog Day. But like in the film of that name, time is very much on our side. We have an incredible opportunity to reflect on what really is important in life. A time to improve ourselves. To become better people. A time to recalibrate and recognise what is truly important. What we want, and what we actually need going forward. A reset button so to speak. A time to go back to the factory settings. A do-over. A second chance.

And in this lockdown, we have come to appreciate our families and our loved ones more. We realise just how much friendship means. We recognise how important community is, and how we long to come back to Synagogue.

Here in London, Synagogues and services are not allowed yet, but to paraphrase a well-known war-time anthem;

“We’ll meet again, don’t know where, don’t know when, But Please God we will meet again in Synagogue soon and it will certainly be a sunny day.”

About the Author
A community Rabbi for over 18 years, Rabbi Lerer is Senior Rabbi at Central Synagogue London. He also teaches in the Beis 6th Form Programme at Hasmonean High School.
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