In this week's parsha we learn about a remarkable mitzvah, namely Pesach Sheni. Some men were unable to keep the mitzvah of the korban pesach (sacrifice of the paschal lamb) because they were unclean from the body of a dead person. (In fact, says Sforno, they became unclean in the performance of the important mitzvah of burying the dead.) They approached Moses and Aaron, appealing not to be thereby denied the opportunity of performing the mitzvah of Pesach. Moses said, "Wait, let me see what G-d says about this." He got the response that (then, and in the future) anyone who was unable to keep the mitzvah of the korban pesach, because he was either unclean from the body of a dead person or on a distant journey, would have another chance exactly one month later.
Why do I say this mitzvah is remarkable? Because there is no other occasion in the Torah, that I can think of, in which you have a second opportunity to perform a mitzvah. If, for instance, you did not sit in your sukkah during Sukkos, for reasons good or bad, you don't get another chance one month later! If you did not light your Chanukah candles at the proper time, you don't get another chance the following month; and so on. If you had a good reason for not observing Sukkos or Chanukah in the proper way at the proper time, then fine, you have not committed any sin; if you did not have a good reason, the you're in trouble; but in either case, you don't get a second chance.
Why is it different with Pesach? The answer is: because some men, wanting a second chance to observe the mitzvah, asked for it! Now think of what they were up against: if anything is fixed and unchanging in this world, it is the Torah and its mitzvos! You can perform the mitzvos, ignore them, like them, complain about them, but you can't change them, add to them, or remove any of them. And yet, this mitzvah of Pesach Sheni was instituted (apparently) just because of the determination of a few men. (In the Yeshiva at Slobodka, whenever one asked, "But how could that be?" the answer was: "From here we see that it can be!" There is a similar situation with the story of the daughters of Zelophehad in Numbers 36.) This shows that any obstacle, even halachic, can be overcome because of a person's determination. I saw confirmation of this idea in a book I was reading this morning: "Tiferes Shmuel" by the Rebbe of Alexander.
This reminds me of the story in the Gemara (Baba Metzia 84a) of Reish Lokish, the leader of the bandits, and Rabbi Yochanan, the President of the Sanhedrin and the compiler of the Jerusalem Talmud. One day R. Yochanan, swimming in the Jordan River, saw Reish Lokish diving in. Admiring the physical strength of Reish Lokish, he said to him: "Your strength would be better suited for study of the Torah." Reish Lokish replied: "Your beauty would be better suited for women." R. Yochanan then said: "If you do tshuva (repent) and devote yourself to Torah, I'll let you marry my sister, who is even more beautiful than I." Reish Lokish agreed to this on the spot. When, later, Reish Lokish wanted to put on his clothes, he could barely drag himself out of the river! Rashi explains this by quoting a gemara that study of Torah weakens one. Although Reish Lokish had not yet begun to study Torah, just his commitment at that moment was apparently enough to weaken him. He became one of the Torah giants of his generation, and a study partner of R. Yochanan. In fact, when he died, R. Yochanan lost his mind, because he missed Reish Lokish's ability to raise good objections to his arguments, but that's another story.
What do these two stories have in common? It is this: if you are determined to achieve something, no matter what the obstacles or how unlikely it may seem, you may succeed. In the one case, a few men managed to get a mitzvah instituted, and in the other, the leader of the bandits, as a result of a split-second commitment while bathing, became a Torah giant. I have often seen this phenomenon in the Torah world: thinking back to my time in Yeshiva, I realize that in many cases it was not those who were expected to become Rosh Yeshivas who eventually did so, but often, in fact, those who were least expected to! Presumably they were people who felt a strong commitment to achieve this. And I am sure the same is true in the secular world. The important thing for success in any field is not innate talent (although that helps!) but a sufficiently strong determination to overcome obstacles, and to succeed.
Rabbi Yaacov Haber
Rabbi Haber is the OU's National Director of Jewish Education and the spiritual leader of the OU's Pardes Program
"A tree of life for those who embrace it"
Send comments to Rabbi Haber at firstname.lastname@example.org