Taking No for an Answer – B’ha-alotekha 5781

D'var Torah | Numbers

So essential was the celebration of Passover and so grievous was ritual defilement that the problem resultant when the two clashed required divine resolution. Ordinarily, a person who came into contact with a corpse was disqualified from entering into the holy precincts of the Tabernacle or the Temple until a specific ritual of purification was performed. But this ritual was observed over a week, and culminated with ritual immersion (Numbers 19:11ff). If an Israelite came into contact with a corpse within a period of seven days before Passover, that Israelite was barred from bringing the paschal lamb to the Tabernacle or Temple and effectively excluded from celebrating the festive meal we call the Seder.


To miss participation in this foundational holiday of Judaism would be, to say the least, disquieting. But this was about to be the case for a group of Israelites who accidentally became ritually defiled. Horrified by the prospect of their exclusion, they appeal to Moses and Aaron for an exception (Numbers 9:6). They see no logical reason for being barred. After all, it was not their fault (Numbers 9:7). Unwilling to make the call on his own, Moses consults with God who then institutes the Second Passover – precisely one month after the first – to accommodate these Israelites and all others in this predicament in the future.


To many modern commentators, this episode seems like an example of Judaism adapting to new circumstances whereby the old law is altered to fit with changing times. However, Hakham Isaac Sassoon in his book The Status of Women in Jewish Tradition (p. 153) disagrees. He points out that the Israelites were not allowed an exception at all. Rather, they were allotted another opportunity to celebrate Passover but not with everyone else at the regular time. In effect, the answer to their request was a resolute “No.” The law remained unchanged. These Israelites were given a second chance to observe it.


This incident reminded a colleague of mine Rabbi Noah Gradofsky that the Rolling Stones were right: “You can’t always get what you want; but if you try sometimes you may just get what you need.”


Words to Live By

What lies behind you and what lies ahead of you pales in comparison to what lies inside you.

– Ralph Waldo Emerson

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