Second chances: In the Torah and Jewish tradition, and in American history (Parashat Behaalotecha / Juneteenth)
(Delivered to the United Synagogue of Hoboken, June 18, 2022)
One of the most fascinating rabbis in the time of the Talmud was Rabbi Akiba. Growing up in meager circumstances, he never had the chance to attend school as a child. He was illiterate until age 40, and he worked as a shepherd. When he fell in love with Rachel, the daughter of one of the wealthy philanthropists of Jerusalem, her father effectively disowned her because he were so appalled that she was marrying someone who was so ignorant that he couldn’t read or write.
But at age 40, Akiba was watching his sheep and went to a brook to get some water, and he noticed that in this brook, there were drops of water that were falling on a stone, and over the course of many many years, the drops of water had carved a hole in the stone. It occurred to Akiba: if these drops of water, just a little at a time, were able to carve a hole in this rock,
maybe if I invest some effort every day, eventually I may be able to read.
At that time, he had a school-age son, so he went to school alongside his son. Quickly it became clear that he had an aptitude for study, and of course he learned to read, and soon continued his studies in the rabbinical academy, and not only was he ordained as a rabbi, but he actually became one of the most illustrious rabbinic leaders and teachers of his generation.
Rabbi Akiba became a prime example of someone who got a second chance in his life, and he continues to be a special source of inspiration for those who find their path to education as adults, and those who begin their serious engagement with Judaism as adults (including many people in our congregation).
Rabbi Akiba is on my mind this week because one of the themes in our torah reading for this week is second chances. We read in the Torah portion of Beha’alotecha that each year, exactly one month after the first night of Passover, the first night of Pesach, there should be another holiday known as Pesach Sheni, or Second Passover. This holiday is not intended for everyone, but specifically for those who, for whatever reason, missed the observance of Passover at its appropriate time. Perhaps they were ill, or on a journey, during Passover and weren’t able to bring the prescribed Passover offering at its appropriate time. They get a second chance: they can bring the offering exactly one month later.
Interestingly, Rashi’s commentary on this passage tells us that to participate in the ritual of Pesach Sheni, you didn’t even need a particularly compelling excuse for why you missed Passover the first time around. For example, if during the actual holiday of Passover, you were right outside the doors of the Tabernacle or the Temple, and for some reason you didn’t go in, you could still fulfill the Passover ritual on Pesach Sheni.
In other words, there is maximum openness to granting this second chance. This is a theme that we see throughout Jewish tradition. For example, our concept of Teshuvah (repentance), so important during the high holidays, is predicated on the notion that there are very few mistakes we can make that are truly irreversible. We almost always can get a second chance to change our conduct and our attitude and our life priorities.
The story of Rabbi Akiba, and of Pesach sheni, are also on my mind because of where we are on the American calendar. This Sunday is June 19, known as ‘Juneteenth.” As of last year, it is now an American federal holiday. It commemorates how June 19, 1865, marked the end of enslavement of Black Americans in Texas and finally brought the era of American slavery to its conclusion. It is, in that sense, an American equivalent to the Jewish holiday of Passover that marks the end of Jewish enslavement in Egypt. And accounts of the original celebrations of Juneteenth in Texas in 1865 clearly echo the jubilation that we read about in the Book of Exodus when the Israelites were freed from their enslavement.
Juneteenth has been celebrated in Texas since the 1860s, and in communities throughout the United States for more than 100 years. Observances of Juneteenth waned during the Jim Crow era and the era of the Great Migration, and were revived again in the 1960s. And believe it or not, making Juneteenth a federal holiday was one of not very many things that the two main presidential candidates in 2020 agreed upon. Last year at this time, President Biden signed the bill to make Juneteenth a federal holiday. State and federal employees will have the day off on Monday as the closest weekday to June 19.
Juneteenth also marks the beginning of what we could call the “second chance” for the United States, which was ostensibly founded on principles of democracy and equality but made a mockery of these principles for as long as there was slavery and institutionalized racism and white supremacy. As we know, this country still has a long way to go, but we can be so grateful for this opportunity for a second chance. Like those who missed the chance to offer the Passover sacrifice because they were right outside the Temple door, the earlier generations of Americans did not have a particularly good excuse for missing the chance to embrace the values of equality and freedom. Many countries around the world had made slavery illegal by the early 1800s, and the United States shamefully lagged behind. But the United States got a second chance. Historian Eric Foner famously refers to the abolition of slavery as part of the “second founding of the United States,” with the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments to the Constitution being like the documents of incorporation for this second founding of the United States.
Second chances don’t happen once and for all; they have to be renewed each day. Rabbi Akiba began taking his second chance when he began to accompany his son to school. but he renewed this second chance every day when he continued his studies and his teaching and leading. The United States began its second chance in the 1860s. We pray that together we can help this country to renew its commitment to the values of justice and equality each day.