A little known minor Jewish festival is this Monday, Iyar 14 (corresponding this year to April 26). It is called Pesach Sheini and is famous for bringing the idea of second chances to the forefront of our consciousness. The Torah teaches (Num. 9:10-11) that if someone was unable to offer the Passover sacrifice on its appointed day then he had a “second chance” to bring his Passover offering, eat matza and maror (bitter herbs) thirty days later – on 14 Iyar.
What might prevent someone from going to the Temple (in the days that it stood, and speedily may it be rebuilt in our days), offering his Passover sacrifice and observing the holiday there? He might be ritually impure because he came into contact with a dead body, or he might be too far away to make it in time. In such a case, the person had a second chance.
From this law of Pesach Sheini – the second Passover – our Sages derived the principle that every Jew always has a second chance – and a third chance – and a fourth chance – etc.
Of course, that “second chance” doesn’t come by itself. We have to do something for it – namely, teshuva.
Teshuva – returning, is not only a major theme of the High Holidays, but is a key concept in Jewish philosophy. We might even say that teshuva is “second chance Judaism.” We are told that indeed nothing stands in the way of teshuva.
That said, then, there’s a curious story in the Talmud about a great sage, a colleague of Rabbi Akiva, named Elisha ben Avuya. So great a scholar was he that he was one of the four who entered the Garden of Mystical Knowledge. Unfortunately, the experience shattered his faith, and he became so immersed in heretical thoughts and activities that he became known as Acher – the other – because the Sages viewed him as having so disgraced himself.
And yet, his student Rabbi Meir (who was also a student of Rabbi Akiva) would not abandon him. One Shabbat they were traveling – Rabbi Meir walking and Elisha ben Avuyah riding on a horse, in clear violation of Shabbat. Yet at one point Elisha told Rabbi Meir to stop, because they had reached the limit one was allowed to walk on Shabbat. Rabbi Meir replied, if so (if you still have such a connection), why not do teshuva, why not return? Elisha ben Avuyah said he had heard a heavenly voice declare, “Let every Jew do teshuva – except Acher.” From which he concluded his teshuva would not have been accepted.
The Lubavitcher Rebbe offers two, complementary explanations to the apparent contradiction of this story to the principle of teshuva: One, although Heaven did not desire the teshuva of Elisha ben Avuya, had he pushed himself and done teshuva, he could have stormed the heavenly gates, so to speak, and forced its acceptance. The other explanation is that the heavenly voice said that Acher’s – the other’s teshuva would not be accepted. But if Acher again became the sage Elisha ben Avuya – which could only be done through teshuva – then the teshuva of Elisha ben Avuya would have been accepted.
The Talmudic story concludes with an interesting account. After Acher’s passing the Heavenly Court was at an impasse. He could not enter the World to Come because of his sins, and he could not be judged (i.e., punished for his transgressions, and thus his soul would be purified and he could then enter the World to Come) because of his Torah learning. But because of the prayers of Rabbi Meir before the Heavenly Court, and then the prayers of Rabbi Yochanan, Acher went through the purification process and the soul of Elisha ben Avuya did enter the World-to-Come.
In other words, while one person obviously cannot do teshuva for another, our prayers for, our interest in, our actions on behalf of “another” can be a powerful force to help “another” reach the level where he, too, can have a second chance, since every Jew will always have a second chance. Moshiach NOW!!!