The holiday of Pesach (Passover), the most widely observed and celebrated Jewish holiday in America and the world, is approaching fast. This holiday is special for so many reasons, in part by the fact that it is the most biblically defined of all the holidays. When we celebrate Pesach, we are largely doing so as commanded by Moses and God in Exodus 12 and 13. Indeed, this notion is baked into the very practice of the Pesach Seder as we “relive” and “retell” the story of the Exodus throughout the evening.
One of the fundamental facts of Pesach centers on the people with us. It is the holiday of the home, and we celebrate with what the Torah calls our “household.” The food prescribed in the Torah is a “whole lamb.” If the description of the lamb as “whole” seems to imply a large animal that could not be consumed by one family in one meal, Exodus 12 agrees. “If any household is too small for a whole lamb, they must share it with their neighbor.” Pesach—from the Torah until today—is a communal celebration with family, friends, neighbors and strangers (and Jews and non-Jews) alike.
In essence, the Torah requires that households join to celebrate the Pesach meal, which we now call the seder (for “order”). This is not just a social convention; it’s a comprehensive education in freedom. The first thing that one does as a free person, the Torah teaches us, is to be either a guest or a host—to give and share, and in so doing, to form a sacred community. Therefore, having a seder with multiple households is a deeply integral part of what it means to “relive” the story of the Exodus. And as the various discussions around the seder table with new people always shows, this practice makes the Pesach experience more interesting, instructive and (very importantly) memorable.
What, then, to do in the year of COVID-19? When combining households might violate the most important Jewish principle of all—pikuach nefesh, that of “saving a life,” how can we approach this most important of holidays? The Torah has an answer for that, too.
The Jews had been in the desert for a year, and it was time for the first Pesach. We seemed excited, as even this rebellious people “did everything just as the Lord commanded Moses.”
But there was a problem.
“Some of them” came to Moses and Aaron, and said that they wanted to celebrate Pesach, but could not because they were impure and could not join in community. They wanted to be able to celebrate our magnificent holiday anyway: “Why should we be kept from presenting the Lord’s offering with the other Israelites at the appointed time?”
Moses did what only he could do. He told them that he was going to ask the Boss. And they all had the expectation that Moses would receive an immediate, clear and direct answer, as only he could.
Sure enough, Moses receives one.
God said to Moses: “Tell the Israelites, ‘When any of you or your descendants are unclean because of a dead body or away on a faraway journey,” they are still to celebrate Pesach … on the fourteenth day of the second month at twilight.”
God, in response to a new problem, sympathized with the people and responded by inventing a new holiday: Pesach Sheni (the second Pesach). More than that, God broadened their question. They only asked what to do when they were “impure,” but God added (without being asked) that Pesach Sheni would also apply to those who could not attend the celebration because they were on a “faraway journey.”
This is astonishing.
Pesach is so important, so fundamental and so special that it is the only holiday in Judaism that has a do-over. Pesach Sheni, the Jewish holiday of the second chance, reminds us of this message: If you cannot celebrate Pesach properly this month, do it next month. And God specifies the rules for the second Pesach as well—one must have the same ritual foods (the matzah, the lamb, the bitter herbs), but need not abstain from chametz (unleavened bread) for the full seven days afterwards. In other words, just make the seder. Just the beautiful, powerful, communal opportunity to retell and relive the story of the Exodus—and in so doing discuss together what it means to be free, today and forever.
There are lots of reasons why Jews should always acknowledge and appreciate the beautiful holiday of Pesach Sheni. But this year just might offer the only opportunity in all of Jewish history for us to fully embrace and celebrate it.
How can we do so? If we cannot safely and comfortably celebrate Pesach on April 8 and April 9 with multiple households, we should not do so. No one would suggest otherwise. Instead, we can each have an intimate seder with our singular household on April 8—and/or wait until the evening of May 7 (Pesach Sheni) for the real thing.
One could easily, and correctly, in our view maintain that being forced to see other members of our community as potential and likely sources of a devastating illness means that we are all in an effective state of impurity. But one need not even go that far in order to embrace Pesach Sheni as the fundamental time to have a seder this year. Just as God broadened the question of how to celebrate Pesach when impure to also include those on a faraway journey and answered with Pesach Sheni, we can answer the question of Pesach in the era of COVID-19 with a full seder, in community with other households, on May 7. And in doing so, we will be living what is probably the most important idea in the Torah—that we should walk in God’s ways.
And all of us, who might still be effectively in mandated social isolation on April 8, would have a Pesach (Sheni) experience we will likely always cherish, as the feeling of being able to engage meaningfully and physically with other people will be a unique kind of liberation. And it is through such a robust celebration of Pesach Sheni that we will be able to relive the story that is seldom told—of those who, in the book of Numbers, asked Moses (and ultimately, God) how they could celebrate Pesach given their specific limitations.
May this year’s Pesach and Pesach Sheni truly be a holiday about liberation, connection and community.
Mark Gerson, chairman of United Hatzalah, is the author of “The Telling: How the Haggadah Reveals the Jewish Meaning of Life.” Rabbi Matthew Reimer is director of community engagement at the JCC Brooklyn.