“When you have exhausted all possibilities, remember this — you haven’t.” — Thomas Edison.
The times we get to take part in history’s great events can be seldom, if at all. Yet even more rarely do we get to be the ones creating those historic events. This is what makes the holiday of Pesach Sheni — the Second Passover — such a unique holiday. It is the only manmade holiday in Judaism, imparting a powerful lesson to generations on our ability to impact change in the world in which we live.
The Torah shares with us the way the holiday of Pesach Sheni came into being. As there are strict standards of purity required to eat from the Passover sacrificial lamb, some people found themselves excluded from participating in communal observances of Passover.
The Talmud (Sukka 25a) explains that these individuals were not pure on time for Passover because they were carrying the coffin of Joseph, which the Israelites carried from Egypt to Israel. This selfless and altruistic group of people had every excuse not to partake in the communal observance of Passover. Yet, they did not want to miss out on this pillar of the Jewish faith. And so, they approached Moses:
“There were men who were ritually unclean [because of contact with] a dead person, and therefore could not make the Passover sacrifice on that day. So, they approached Moses and Aaron on that day. Those men said to him, “We are ritually unclean [because of contact] with a dead person; [but] why should we be excluded so as not to bring the offering of the Lord in its appointed time, with all the children of Israel?”
Yes, they were engaged in the worthy task of carrying Joseph’s coffin, yet that was not enough. “Why should we be excluded?!”, they see participation in the Mitzvah of Passover as a great honor. They do not want to be excluded from it. In addition to the many lessons in Jewish law derived from this episode, we can also learn a great deal from their eagerness to observe a commandment from which they have been exempt.
The rabbis also see a powerful lesson in Moses’s response. Moses responds:
“Moses said to them, “Wait, and I will hear what the Lord instructs concerning you.”
In addition to the unparallel ability of Moses to speak to God and expect an answer, the rabbis point out the humility with which Moses answers. A powerful lesson on having the power to say: “I do not know.” I the age of social media, in which everyone has a voice for their opinion, we also find too many feeling the need to show their expertise on issues there are absolutely unfamiliar with. Moses leaves us with an inspiring lesson on the need to be able to say: “I do not know.”
God’s answer to Moses is even more surprising:
“The Lord spoke to Moses saying: Speak to the children of Israel saying, Any person who becomes unclean from [contact with] the dead, or is on a distant journey, whether among you or in future generations, he shall make a Passover sacrifice for the Lord. In the second month, on the fourteenth day, in the afternoon, they shall make it; they shall eat it with unleavened cakes and bitter herbs.” They shall not leave over anything from it until the next morning, and they shall not break any of its bones. They shall make it in accordance with all the statutes connected with the Passover sacrifice.”
God implementing a second Passover teaches us so much about the importance of second chances. Yet, more than that, it teaches us about the power of individuals to chart their own path and reshape history. The holiday of Pesach Sheni is brought forth by virtue of individuals that rise to demand a better world.
The great Rabbi Judah Lowe, the Maharal of Prague, points out that the holiday of Pesach Sheni can only be observed by individuals — not by the Jewish people as a whole. If the entire Jewish people were impure and unable to celebrate Passover on its proper date, they might not observe it on the Peach Sheni. The holiday of Pesach Sheni is meant for individuals only. The Maharal explains the role Passover has in proclaiming God as King of the Jewish people. That relationship between us as a people and God will stay in place no matter what happens. The role of individuals in that relationship does depend on each and every one of us. Similarly, when it comes to changing the course of history, the holiday of Pesach Sheni highlights the power of individuals to make for change.
It is hard to ignore the many parallels between the birth of the holiday of Pesach Sheni and the story of the daughters of Zelophehad approaching Moses thirty-eight years later, right before the Jewish people enter the land of Israel.
“They stood before Moses… saying, “Our father died in the desert, but he was not in the assembly that banded together against the Lord in Korah’s assembly, but he died for his own sin, and he had no sons. Why should our father’s name be eliminated from his family because he had no son? Give us a portion along with our father’s brothers. “(Bamidbar 27)
Using the same term used by the carriers of Joseph’s coffin (“Lama Niagara — Lama Yigara“), the daughters of Tzelofchad want a share in the land of Israel. They, too, are not satisfied with the status quo. With them too, Moses decides to refer judgment to God, and with them too, history changes course:
“So Moses brought their case before the Lord. The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: Zelophehad’s daughters speak justly. You shall certainly give them a portion of inheritance along with their father’s brothers, and you shall transfer their father’s inheritance to them.”
What an incredible success.
The daughters of Zelophehad’s love for the land of Israel and not wanting to be left out of the Mitzvah of settling the land brought forth a new reality. They changed history.
Seldom do individuals succeed in changing history, and when they do, they stand out for all of us.
Such is the story of Mickey Marcus. Marcus grew up in a family of Jewish immigrants in New York. With an astonishing resume, Marcus went on to graduate from West Point, work for mayor La Guardia, and become a judge in New York. When World War Two broke out, Marcus rejoined the U.S. Army and bravely parachuted into Normandy, taking out many German soldiers. As the war ended, Marcus was in a senior position in the U.S. Army and was devastated by the scenes in the Nazi concentration camps. Upon return to New York, he decided to leave public life and establish an independent law practice.
In 1947 David Ben Gurion sent Shlomo Shamir to the U.S. to recruit individuals with considerable military experience to help with the establishment of the future Jewish state’s army. Shamir came with a list of many officers and asked Marcus to help him reach out to them all. None of them agreed to come — except for Mickey Marcus. Upon arrival, Marcus helped organize, train, and upgrade the future Jewish army. When Israel’s war of independence broke out, Jerusalem was one of the most difficult battlegrounds. On the day Jerusalem’s old city was captured by Jordan, Ben Gurion appointed Marcus to command the Jerusalem front. History was repeating itself, and Jerusalem was under siege. The Jordanian and Iraqi forces had complete control of the road up to Jerusalem. Convoys with food, medicine, and arms were ambushed and lynched. Despair began settling in.
General Marcus plotted the construction of a secret road that was paved in the dark of the night while enemy forces were distracted with firepower from elsewhere. This path came to be known as the Burma Road. It is what saved Jerusalem. Suddenly supplies began pouring into the besieged city, and Western Jerusalem was saved. While Marcus was tragically killed during the war, his legacy lives on forever. He changed the course of history. No one obliged him to do so. He was the only high-ranking officer who got up, left the comfort of his home, and helped establish the state of Israel. That is the lesson of Pesach Sheni. Individuals change history.
The holiday of Pesach Sheni reminds us of the power of individuals to get up and say: “lama niggara — why should we be left out?”; it reminds us of the power of each individual to change the course of history.