Parasha BeHar — Getting Second Chances

Last Saturday night, as we left the synagogue following Havdalah, we were greeted by a Full Moon rising above the treetops in the East. To the right of the moon shone the planet Mars, with even its reddish tint visible to the naked eye. Looking up, I was reminded that at the last Full Moon we sat down to our first night Seder. This Full Moon marks the onset of yet another holiday that is mentioned in the Torah. This second Full Moon marks a biblical holiday called Peshach Sheni – the Second Passover. The Torah relates that on the very first Passover in the Wilderness of Sinai, some men came to Moses and told him that they did not celebrate the Passover. It wasn’t because they did not want to, they explained. It was because they were ritually unclean. Being ritually unclean, they could not eat of the Passover sacrifice. What should they do, they asked Moses? Moses then inquired of God, and God told him to have the men celebrate Passover a month later. This is the only place in the Torah where, if one misses celebrating a holiday, one gets a second chance a month later!  
            We no longer celebrate this holiday, the Pesach Sheni, or second Passover. Since the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed and the sacrificial mode of worship ceased, we no longer partake of the Passover sacrifice on Passover. Therefore, this Second Passover, this “do-over” Passover, has become an obsolete holiday. The date is still noted on Jewish calendars, and some very observant people have a custom of eating some matzah at a meal on this day, but otherwise there is no observance at all.

            One could say that the Torah portion we read this week, Behar, is a portion about second chances. When the Israelites entered the land of Canaan, the land was divided up according to tribe and according to family. Each family started out on an equal footing. As time goes on, however, some families are bound to prosper and others to decline economically. Perhaps due to bad weather, poor farming techniques, poor decisions, laziness, greed, illness, or just bad luck, some people fall into debt and have to sell the family holding. If you lose your land, not only are you destined to work for someone else for the rest of your life, but your descendents are likely to work for others as well. Having lost your family inheritance once, you have lost your only access to the means of production forever.

             The institution of the Jubilee year is put forth in this week’s Torah portion to give people, and families, a second chance. In the Jubilee year, every person or family who lost their land in previous years is allowed to return to it and to reclaim it as their own. This is part of the Torah’s vision of what an ideal society looks at. An ideal society gives people a second chance at prosperity. An ideal society protects its most vulnerable members – the poor, the widow and the orphan – from sinking into hopeless poverty.

            It is not clear whether the Jubilee Year, as prescribed by the Torah, was ever put into practice in the Land of Israel. Did families actually get to return to their land? We do not know. There would certainly be challenges to any society that would try this. It reminds me of a story I heard of the rabbi who returned home excited to tell his wife that he had made a great deal of progress in solving the problem of poverty in his town. That’s so wonderful, said his proud wife. “Yes, I’ve solved half the problem already,” he said. “The poor are ready and willing to take,” he told his wife. “All that’s left to do is to convince the rich that they should be willing to give.”

            The idea of the Jubilee year, which gave families a second chance at owning land, had a practical purpose as well as a spiritual message. The practical purpose was that there should be no permanent underclass in Israelite society. There would not be one group of people that had all of the advantages and could build on them, and another group of disadvantaged people who had no hope of ever prospering. Such a society provides fertile ground for envy and is profoundly unfair. The spiritual message of the Jubilee year is to remind us that, as it says in the Psalms, “G-d owns the earth and all it contains, the world and all who live in it.” Nothing that we own, nothing that we achieve, is really ours. Everything, ultimately, belongs to God. This being so, our lives ought to be dedicated to fulfilling G-d’s will on earth. It follows, then, that we all have an obligation to work toward the vision of the ideal society that the Torah lays out.