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The Second Death of the Firstborns (Pesach Sheni)

Editor’s note: This post was supposed to be published on the morning of Sunday, April 29,  but was mistakenly scheduled a day early. 

Today is Pesach Sheni — the “second Pesach.” In Temple times, this holiday was celebrated exactly one month following Passover, by anyone who was unable to observe the festival on its regular date, due to ritual impurity or geographic distance.

Few of us pause to consider the meaning behind this minor holiday. Yet the story behind Pesach Sheni may be one of the most fascinating, and one of the most dramatic stories behind any Jewish holiday — if we just read it the right way.

Here, in that spirit, is the link to a special shiur exploring the “untold backstory” of Pesach Sheni. It was originally presented at Congregation Ahavas Achim, in Highland Park, New Jersey, and has been partially annotated with footnotes to help readers navigate through the source material. In it, we propose the following (spoiler alert):  

Image result for matzah1. The inauguration of the Mishkan was deliberately patterned upon the ceremony of the original Korban Pesach (seven day festival; climaxes on 1st of Nissan — the date that laws of Korban Pesach were originally taught; replete with sacrifices — these being the first sacrifices offered since the Korban Pesach in Egypt; calls for sprinkling of blood/smearing of liquid outside the dwelling; prohibition of “leaving” the “entrance” of the dwelling; “girding” of the participants; involves the eating of matzah; ritual is described as a “safeguard” against death; festival culminates in national song; etc.)

2. The purpose of this parallel: On the night of the Korban Pesach–and indeed, throughout the saga of the ten plagues–B’nei Yisrael related to Hashem primarily as a force of destruction; in that context, their aim was to keep Him outside the house. Now, a year later, they want to take the next step in the relationship, by building Him a house in the midst of their community and inviting Him inside. Thus, the inauguration of the Mishkan repackages the rituals of the Korban Pesach, in a way which symbolizes this transition.

3. However, tragedy strikes with the deaths of Nadav and Avihu. This parallels, in an ironic way, the deaths of the firstborns, which occurred on the night of the Korban Pesach.

4. The Torah tells us that a group of men who had contracted “corpse impurity” were unable to participate in that year’s Korban Pesach, and that they therefore approached Moshe requesting permission to participate at some later date. These anonymous “men” should be identified as those who cared for the remains of Nadav and Avihu–Nadav and Avihu’s deaths, after all, being the only ones reported among B’nei Yisrael from the time they left Egypt to the time that the laws of Pesach Sheni were introduced.

5. Hence, it was the deaths of Nadav and Avihu which prompted the institution of Pesach Sheni. This makes sense both in terms of the date (their deaths occurred on the first of Nissan i.e. two weeks before the Korban Pesach was due) and in terms of the nature of the request (they’re proposing to Moshe an innovation in the sacrificial ritual, on the basis of having been recently exposed to death — precisely the way Aharon and his sons do in the wake of Nadav and Avihu’s deaths).

All this, and more, here. 

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