By Dina Brawer
Our Pesach Seder today is largely focused on the Haggadah. However, in the time of the Bet HaMikdash, the key ritual of the holiday was the Korban Pesach (Paschal Lamb). Ritual purity was required of every individual to partake in the sacrificial lamb, which is today symbolized by the afikoman.
Anyone finding themselves unable to get to the mikveh before the 14th of Nissan would be unable to take eat the Korban Pesach and be exempt from this mitzvah.
When Moshe gives instruction on how Pesach should be observed and commemorated after the Exodus, a number of individuals who were ritually impure on erev Pesach approached Moshe in protest:
‘We are impure through contact with a dead body,’ they say. ‘Why should we miss out, and not bring the offering of the LORD in its appointed season among the Children of Israel?’ (Bamidbar 9: 7)
Their words לָמָּה נִגָּרַע, literally, ‘why should we be diminished?’, convey their dismay at being left out of an important feature of the Pesach celebration. While this is understandable, why are they protesting about this particular ritual? After all, they are being initiated into a religion focused in large part on Temple rituals, all of which require ritual purity. It is inevitable that at any given time a number of people will be unable to take part in some ritual, as impurity is an unavoidable part of the everyday, built into lifecycle moments of birth, menstruation, seminal emission and death.
Their expression is echoed later on in Sefer Bamidbar by Tzlofchad’s daughters, who approach Moshe when the Land of Israel is being apportioned to each male head of family, asking לָמָּה יִגָּרַע – ‘Why should the name of our father be diminished from among his family, because he had no son?’ (Bamidbar 27: 4)
I want to suggest that the words לָמָּה נִגָּרַע speak of an attitude towards religious ritual that sees it as something beyond the obligation to adhere to a set of laws and traditions. While the individuals in question are technically ‘exempt’ from taking part, they are sorely aware that they nonetheless are missing out on an experience fundamental to their core identity. Both the Korban Pesach and the apportioning of land in Eretz Israel define the parameters for the individual to belong to the larger whole.
Through the Korban Pesach one enters the inner circle, as each individual is required to be counted in a specific group who will gather to consume the Paschal lamb at the Seder. Through the apportioning of Land of Israel by families and tribes, one enters the wider circle of national identity.
The men and women who challenged Moshe, understood the importance of taking part and being counted. They realized that while circumstances exempted them, they themselves would be diminished if they did not take part. While on both occasions their challenges took Moshe by surprise, God’s answer validates their feeling and provides an alternative opportunity for being counted. Tzlofchad’s daughters acquire their father’s land and those impure on the eve of Pesach can partake of the Korban Pesach a month later on the 14th of Iyar, known as Pesach Sheni.
Today, when the Korban Pesach is not a reality, Pesach Sheni invites us to consider the importance of belonging. Coming as soon as it does after Yom ha’Atazmaut, the two dates invoke the concentric circles of Jewish belonging: the wider circle of our collective national homeland and the inner circle of community and family. The value of these circles is only accentuated in a postmodern world in which identity and a sense of belonging are so elusive.
Dina Brawer founded JOFA UK, has recently launched Mishkan: a community beyond borders, and is currently studying for Orthodox semikha at Yeshivat Maharat in New York. She completed the Bradfield Programme in 2002.