It is hard to believe, but Pesach is upon us, with Yom HaShoah and Israel Independence Day soon to follow. We make our way on our calendar, from these holidays, through the counting period to Shavuoth. Their rapid fire succession has sparked these thoughts–
There is a wonderful hymn that we sing at the end of the Passover Seder, in the English, “Who knows One.” It teaches us of two and three and four, etc, just like the succession of holy times in our Jewish calendar. Let me explain. An insightful sage asks the question, "Why is it that the second verse and the tenth verse are so similar? After all, the refain for two tells us it's the two tablets of law, and the tenth verse, asking "who knows ten?" answers it's the Ten Commandments. Aren't they really the same thing? The tablets are the Ten Commandments! How is it that the author of the hymn could have been so repetitive?
The sage answers his question by saying that they are not the same. The two tablets of law refer not to the two tablets of one set, the Ten Commandments, but the two sets of tablets of law. The first tablets were smashed when Moses saw the golden calf. He went up again to get a second set! The second verse celebrates the phenomenon of second chances in Judaism–the ability of a people to recognize its mistakes and to get a second break from the God of Israel. God is always willing to give us a second chance.
Thinking more deeply about this, however, the coming of the Israelites into the land from Egypt was actually a second chance as well, for Abraham had dwelled there, but the people needed to pass through the “furnace of fire” to become a people of character and unity. Jacob went down to Egypt, a second return. But wait a minute, that too was followed by a blown chance. The first generation muffed it when they heeded the pessimism of the spies and were condemned to die in the desert. One could say that the second generation of freed Hebrews getting in was the third chance that God bestowed on them. Unfortunately, that effort, too, was lost when the Babylonians destroyed the first Temple. We were granted yet a fourth opportunity when Cyrus and Darius got us back to the Holy Land and we built yet a second national home. Alas, the Romans exiled the Judaen State in 70Ce and quashed its rebirth in 135 Ce, during the era of Bar Kochba.
Now along came a fifth chance, granted by Heaven. It started with a dream, in the book The Alte Neue Land, written by Theodore Herzl, more than a century ago. Many make the point that this effort was driven not by heaven above, but by people from below. The Zionist Movement organized, and a society in the making emerged by the hard work of statesmen, philanthropists, industrialists, scientists, dreamers and followers that made facts on the ground. Herzl said “if one wills it, it is not a dream.”
Now we stand 70 years in the aftermath of that fifth opportunity, granted to us by the dedicated, brazen and innovative Israeli population. Beset by adversity, Israel has become a military power and entrepreneurial, technological society. She has emerged as a world leader in medical, botanical, technological and scientific achievement. She stands poised to share her know-how with the world around her, and I believe is diplomatically prepared for compromise with a Palestinian leadership that will give up its dream of dismantling the Jewish State. This fifth opportunity is one that all of us should share by visiting Israel and supporting her. Israel has made mistakes, as has all nations. The rebirth of a national existence has its share of complicating elements and moral challenges. But we should be unbelievably proud of the State of Israel as she stands on the precipice of 70 years. May the Zionist State go from attainment to attainment, aided by the support of nations of good will. She has only just begun to share of her bounty and be the light unto nations that is her mission. (Stay tuned for more on the celebration of the 70th anniversary in the coming month).
What is true for a nation is true for individuals. Judaism and the Bible hold that second chances–third, fourth and fifth ones–are what life is about. All of us make mistakes and sometimes go off in wrong directions. It doesn't mean we should do whatever we want, always knowing that God will take us back. But Judaism holds that God is ready to take us in when we return and are ready to start anew–sincerely anew. And it it means that we must never give up on each other or on ourselves. May Pesach be sweet for you and yours. And may we always be conscious, in our lives, of second and third chances when failure strikes. May we always remember our resilient nature as individuals and as a people.