I lived on the Upper West Side for the first five years after getting married. For four of those, I davened at Lincoln Square Synagogue (I was Assistant Rabbi at The Jewish Center for the fifth). The Associate Rabbi of LSS at the time (and for its entire history up until that point) was R. Herschel Cohen, a”h. I think of him on Parshat Beha’alotecha because it contains the story of Pesach Sheini, when Hashem told the Jewish people of another chance at offering a Paschal sacrifice.
Pesach Sheini each year I was there, R. Cohen offered the same thought between Mincha and Maariv of the afternoon services, I believe in the name of R. Soloveitchik. While the Torah speaks of those who were too far to offer the sacrifice on Pesach itself as a matter of physical distance, we can homiletically think of those Jews who were too far theologically, too far religiously. Pesach Sheini, we remember second chances, our people’s continuing hope those too far at one point may not be too far later, as we seek opportunities to help them return in time for a Pesach Sheini, this year or in years to come.
It was how R. Cohen lived. The converts he taught and guided learned from him a remarkable seriousness of purpose and commitment. Ditto for ba’alei teshuvah he guided, usually Jews who had never known observance. I remember a vivid example, at an evening Beit Midrash program at Lincoln Square.
A man I knew casually, probably in his fifties and a ba’al teshuvah, called me over excitedly to tell me he was beginning to study Gemara. I congratulated him and, curious, asked him how he had chosen then. He had been observant all the time I knew him, already a fixture at the shul when I arrived.
He told me, “R. Cohen says you should not start Gemara until you have been through all of Mishnah twice, and now I have.”
I was not particularly close with R. Cohen, do not claim to have known him well, and certainly he had an impact on many people who came through Lincoln Square’s doors more significantly than he did me. Yet whenever Pesach Sheini comes up, he stays in my mind as a model of calm patience, someone who chose to stay with one shul (without ever seeking to be its Senior Rabbi) rather than find a place he could head, who worked with complicated people—non-Jews who started on their path to Judaism because they were dating a nonobservant Jew; Jews who knew little about their tradition; Jews raised in an observant home and therefore were sure they knew better than he—yet was always alert for each person’s Pesach Sheini.
As much as the thought itself, I was impressed with how he said it each year, a reminder and refresher. I was someone who at the time insisted on saying something different each time I spoke, feared I was getting stale or trite if I ever repeated a thought, and he taught me we sometimes need to hear important ideas multiple times before we absorb them.
He has not been with us since 2000, when he passed away relatively young. For this year, let me share R. Herschel Cohen’s idea: the Torah sets up a second chance for offering a Pesach sacrifice. This central experience of a Jew’s year, when s/he remembers and relives the Exodus, the experience of Hashem saving our Jewish first-born whether or not we or they deserved it, is too important to be left to the vicissitudes of a Jew’s ability to get to Yerushalayim in time.
Whether for practical reasons—distance which cannot be bridged, ritual impurity which cannot be removed in time, for whatever reason—or for more tragic ones, such as a spiritual distance which does not yet permit a person to realize what s/he is missing, Hashem gives us another chance, each year, in the hopes we will find our way back.
What is true of the Pesach is true in general, R. Cohen would say; Hashem wants us back and close, from whatever distance we currently occupy. All we need to do is start.