Pesach Sheni – literally 2nd Passover – addresses people who missed the 1st Pesach. When it was time to bring the Pascal offering, they were unavailable, either because they were “ritually impure through contact with a dead body, or away on a distant journey” (Numbers 9:1-12). This situation has never come up before, so it is not obvious for Moses what to do. In response to his query, G-d tells him that these people can prepare the same offering a month later, on the next full moon, the 14th of Iyar, this year coming up this Wednesday, May 10.
For many, the day has come to symbolize how “it’s never too late”. If you google it, you’ll find some lovely commentaries: “The eternal significance of the Second Passover’, says the sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn (1880-1950), ‘is that it’s never too late to rectify a past failing… there is always a Second Passover in which s/he can make good on what s/he has missed out. The Second Passover thus represents the power to go back in time and redefine the past”…
What’s not to love about this teaching. Except that for me, Pesach Sheni happens to be my father’s yahrzeit (the anniversary of his death). And there is nothing like a yahrzeit to remind us that try as we might, there is not “always” a second chance, nor a way to rectify and redefine the past. In fact, the whole teaching seems to highlight exactly the opposite. If there was “always” a second chance, there would not have been a need to ask Moses about it; and there would not have been a need for him to check with G-d Almighty before replying.
What’s more, there is no 2nd any other holiday. If you missed Yom Kippur, that’s just too bad. You can do your own t’shuva (repentance) any day, but that majestic fast day, will only come back next fall. Similarly, if you were incognito during Sukkot or Hanukkah, well, there is going to be another one, but most likely not next month.
So the fact is, the people asking, and Moses himself, knew very well, as I am painfully reminded each year, that second chances are super rare and hard to come by; that while we pray and hope, beg and bargain for them, rather than an “always”, they are usually not readily available and extremely extraordinary.
There is a custom to eat matzah on Pesach Sheni, just like on Passover and some see it as a (very minor) holiday, but for me, it’s a day to light a candle and rummage through old boxes.
I pull out the Berlin newspaper clip from 1928 where my father is featured as a newly discovered young Mozart; The photos of him hiking with his father and brothers – in shorts and a hiking stick; sitting dutifully by his mom, elegant and sharp.I look at his school portrait from Berlin of the early 1930’s. At 13, he’s properly dressed, hair combed sideways, front row of a non-Jewish school. What did he know about how life is about to change? Just another school day or a forever good bye? Did his parents tell him what’s coming, or did they just do the “German” thing, packing quietly before the journey began?
There are photos from his wedding to my mom, and from their honeymoon – a photographer on the Acropolis catches them climbing up, smiling, looking at each other lovingly; and then with little me on his lap, both of us playing the old piano, a love for music that seeps through the generations on to his grandchildren. I see him with us children at the beautiful Haifa beach: a big colorful beach-ball, the waves playing behind us on the horizon.
And the photos in my head, the moments that no camera ever caught: heading to the synagogue on Friday afternoon, my mom handing him his cane which he reluctantly accepts, while I obliviously skip around in a pretty flowery dress. Hand in hand we walk up the stony steps, deep in conversation, as the sun slowly goes down. Did he already know how numbered were his days?
I find diplomas from his learning and try to piece it together: will I ever find out if he actually went to London for his matriculation, law and accounting exams in the early 1940’s, or did the British Mandate allow for exams in pre-Israel Palestine? There is his photo in the long dark robe: young, proud, successful, a big promise, a big smile, the whole world awaiting; a world full of 1st and 2nd chances.
And there is an envelope my mom saved from the last weeks of his life, no longer able to speak as his body gives in to the horrors of ALS; thin rice paper, almost etched through, with his now shaky, block-lettered handwriting, reverting back to his childhood German: Get the family. Now. Please don’t go.
My brother and I are both older now than he’ll ever be but forever he remains our father and we, his children, with the lessons he’s left behind. It’s Pesach Sheni, and yet, second chances are practically a miracle.