The Power of Second Chances: Parshat Beha’alotecha’s Message on Adaptation

Rabbanit Rivky Krestt teaches at Midreshet Lindenbaum’s Maria and Joel Finkle Overseas Program

%D7%A8%D7%91%D7%A7%D7%99 %D7%A7%D7%A8%D7%A1%D7%98How do we learn to pivot? To change our frame of mind to adapt to a new situation?

The ability to adapt to a new situation is one of the soft skills that are essential for growth and development. This parasha relates to us a case about the unavoidable reality that humans will need to pivot and a built-in fix that Moshe models and then establishes for Bnai Yisrael.

The parasha begins with one the high points of the entire Torah. After months of working and building the mishkan, after a year of desert life since leaving Egypt, Bnai Yisrael are ready to travel to the land of Israel.

The drama is palpable as we read: We can almost feel the ananaim rising from their location. We can almost hear Moshe proclaiming.

וַיְהִ֛י בִּנְסֹ֥עַ הָאָרֹ֖ן וַיֹּ֣אמֶר מֹשֶׁ֑ה קוּמָ֣ה ׀ ה וְיָפֻ֙צוּ֙ אֹֽיְבֶ֔יךָ וְיָנֻ֥סוּ מְשַׂנְאֶ֖יךָ מִפָּנֶֽיךָ׃

וּבְנֻחֹ֖ה יֹאמַ֑ר שׁוּבָ֣ה ה רִֽבְב֖וֹת אַלְפֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵֽל׃ ׆ {פ}

But leaving the midbar means leaving the life to which they have become accustomed to for the last year. Some members of the nation are not ready for the change and they begin complaining:

וַיְהִ֤י הָעָם֙ כְּמִתְאֹ֣נְנִ֔ים רַ֖ע בְּאׇזְנֵ֣י ה וַיִּשְׁמַ֤ע ה וַיִּ֣חַר אַפּ֔וֹ וַתִּבְעַר־בָּם֙ אֵ֣שׁ יְהֹוָ֔ה ה בִּקְצֵ֥ה הַֽמַּחֲנֶֽה׃

This event is the first in a series of events in which Bnai Yisrael begin a downward spiral that will culminate in Chet HaMeraglim and the decree that this generation will be denied entry into the Land of Israel and will be condemned to wander in the desert for forty years until they have died off.

Bnai Yisrael don’t know the end of the story at this point. But already the ideal journey to enter the land of Israel on a national and spiritual high is tainted.

What do we do with this reality? More importantly, what message can we learn from this change of course?

On the one hand, it is always challenging to cope with a new reality.  On the other hand, ups and downs are part of the human condition.  How we make sense of it is always a challenge.

This is the question that Sheryl Sandberg, the COO of Facebook, addresses in her book “Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience and Finding Joy” co-authored with psychologist Adam Grant after the sudden death of her husband, Dave Goldberg, in 2015.

The book details Sandberg’s personal journey through grief and how she rebuilt her life, while also providing insights into how others can overcome adversity. “Life is never perfect,” she writes. “We all live some form of Option B.”

This quote reflects the stark reality that sometimes, the ideal or preferred situation (Option A) is unattainable, often due to unforeseen and uncontrollable circumstances. When this happens, the only choice is to make the best of what remains (Option B).

This week’s parsha is rife with Option B.

In fact, with all due respect to Sheryl Sandberg, our parsha gives us a similar message in a different context. Right before Bnai Yisrael begin to travel, the pasuk regales us with a communal celebration of Pesach  on the first anniversary of our exodus from Egypt.

Passover is known as the holiday of Jewish Identity and of freedom. As we prepare to enter the Land of Israel, we are reaffirming our national identity. It also marks the next stage in our freedom as we prepare to return to the land of our ancestors. And we garner the strength and resolve to undertake unfathomable task of entering the land of Israel and conquering it.  The people of Israel are not warriors (yet) and this is a scary time.

There are several times in Tanach that we see the celebration of Passover as a means of rededicating and rejuvenating the religious and national identity of the people. Joshua celebrated Pesach right before he entered the land of Israel for the first time. Hezekiah Pesach as a part of kick-starting his religious renewal to save the First Temple. Josiah celebrated Pesach as part of his religious renewal to recommit the Jewish people to Hashem.  Ezra celebrated Pesach at the beginning of the Second Temple to rededicate the people to our cause.  Each celebration of פסח in Tanakh is a signpost to us on the importance of celebrating our anniversary as a people and our relationship with Hashem.

It is precisely at this moment of affirmation and identity building that a group of people spoke up. They were upset that they were left out of the celebration:

וַיְהִ֣י אֲנָשִׁ֗ים אֲשֶׁ֨ר הָי֤וּ טְמֵאִים֙ לְנֶ֣פֶשׁ אָדָ֔ם וְלֹא־יָכְל֥וּ לַעֲשֹׂת־הַפֶּ֖סַח בַּיּ֣וֹם הַה֑וּא וַֽיִּקְרְב֞וּ לִפְנֵ֥י מֹשֶׁ֛ה וְלִפְנֵ֥י אַהֲרֹ֖ן בַּיּ֥וֹם הַהֽוּא׃

וַ֠יֹּאמְר֠וּ הָאֲנָשִׁ֤ים הָהֵ֙מָּה֙ אֵלָ֔יו אֲנַ֥חְנוּ טְמֵאִ֖ים לְנֶ֣פֶשׁ אָדָ֑ם לָ֣מָּה נִגָּרַ֗ע לְבִלְתִּ֨י הַקְרִ֜יב אֶת־קׇרְבַּ֤ן יְהֹוָה֙ בְּמֹ֣עֲד֔וֹ בְּת֖וֹךְ בְּנֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵֽל׃

There was a group of men who were ritually impure due to contact with a dead body and were unable to bring the Korban Pesach on the appointed day. They approached Moshe and asked why they should be excluded from bringing the offering too?

Can you imagine what it must have been like to be one of those people?  The first opportunity they had to mark the anniversary of the Exodus, which was not only an event in the history of the nation – but it was also THE event. The paradigm that would mark the rest of Jewish history in perpetuity. And they were being denied the opportunity to participate.

In response, Moshe did something unexpected. He validated their question, conceded that that he did not know the answer and consulted Hashem directly. It was at this point that Hashem told Moses about a second chance: Pesach Sheni.  A new holiday was created.

בַּחֹ֨דֶשׁ הַשֵּׁנִ֜י בְּאַרְבָּעָ֨ה עָשָׂ֥ר י֛וֹם בֵּ֥ין הָעַרְבַּ֖יִם יַעֲשׂ֣וּ אֹת֑וֹ עַל־מַצּ֥וֹת וּמְרֹרִ֖ים יֹאכְלֻֽהוּ׃

לֹֽא־יַשְׁאִ֤ירוּ מִמֶּ֙נּוּ֙ עַד־בֹּ֔קֶר וְעֶ֖צֶם לֹ֣א יִשְׁבְּרוּ־ב֑וֹ כְּכׇל־חֻקַּ֥ת הַפֶּ֖סַח יַעֲשׂ֥וּ אֹתֽוֹ׃

Professor Ronald Heifetz, a Senior Lecturer at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, developed a framework for thinking about situations like this. He coined the term, “adaptive challenges” and “technical challenges.”

Adaptive challenges involve deep changes in values, beliefs, roles, and relationships, requiring us to learn, innovate, and adapt. For example, Pesach Sheni was instituted to allow those who were ritually impure or on a distant journey during Passover to observe the holiday a month later, thus adapting the community’s practices to accommodate inclusivity and flexibility. This required a shift in understanding and acceptance within the community to recognize and embrace this change. This shift was not immediately obvious, but Hashem gave His answer and, thereby, introduced Bnai Yisrael to coping with adaptive challenges. This is going to be a crucial approach for the nation as Plan A is uprooted.

This story of adaptive challenges, or second chances, precedes the debacle of the מתאוננים, the complainers. Embedded within the story of Pesach Sheni we see Moshe modelling what to do when we don’t have the answers and we need to re-adjust. This group of people wanted to do the ideal, bring the Korban Pesach, but they were faced with reality that precluded that ability and learned to navigate to the Option B, to bring the korban a month later.

The story of the Passover Sheini may seem out of place at first glance but when we view it from the lens of Hashem preceding the cure before the affliction, of  הקדים רפואה למכה, we see the interchange as an  excellent springboard for considering adaptive behavior. Through this lens, we see a glimmer of hope for the children of Israel who are experiencing the very real phenomenon of having to readjust to something less than ideal. When things don’t go according to plan, we need to acknowledge it, analyze it and implement something in its place. It may not be ideal, but it might be just what we need.

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