So Near And Yet So Far

Passover 5771 may be past, but its lessons return in last week’s parashah (B’ha’alot’kha). Of all our holidays, Passover ranks supreme in that we were delivered from Egypt specifically with Passover in mind. Whatever else we do as Jews follows from this singular event in our past. In Temple days, therefore, the Passover sacrifice was the sole calendrical obligation whose purposeful neglect merited a form of capital punishment called karet – the divine sentence of being “cut off” from family ties after we die.

That point is moot now that the sacrificial cult is gone, but the Talmudic debate on it remains instructive.

Although everyone was supposed to offer the Passover sacrifice, not everyone could – hence the stipulation “purposeful (!)” neglect. Among the circumstances that exempted a person from offering it was being “a long way away” (derekh r’chokah),” too far distant to get to the Temple on time.

But what counts as “a long way away”? How long is “long”?

The Mishnah provides two views: either as far away from Jerusalem as the city of Modi’in with not enough time to make the journey by Passover; or at the very entrance to the Temple, but not yet inside it. The first is logical; the second is not. If the individual is already just outside, asks the Gemara, why don’t we say “Come in!” and expect the person to cross the threshold or suffer the punitive consequences?

At this point, the appearance of the word “long” (r’chokah) in the Torah becomes relevant. In antiquity, and all the way through the Middle Ages, there was no way for a scribe writing with indelible ink on parchment to erase an error. A common convention for noting the mistake was to add a dot or other superlinear mark above the mistaken letter. Now it happens that the Masoretic text (the way the Torah is pointed) displays the word “long” (r’chokah) with a dot over the final heh. The Yerushalmi, therefore, considers the possibility of treating the heh as a mistake, thus reading the word as rachok, the masculine equivalent of r’chokah. Read as a masculine adjective, it can no longer modify the noun “way.” It must, therefore, modify the only other noun in question, not the “journey” that the individual is on, but the “individual” who is on the journey! The Yerushalmi’s conclusion is profound. “It is the person who is distant, not the way.”

Now we understand the Mishnah’s second interpretation. We do not say to those standing right outside the door, “Just come in!” because it would sound more like a threat than an invitation, the assumption being that if they refuse, they will be punished by karet. In actuality, however, they are not sinners; they are just too alienated to take the final step inside. The gemara describes them as “able to do the sacrifice but not doing it” – not out of ill will but (in Maharam’s words) “because of some impediment” that gets in the way.

This rabbinic reading of halakhah effectively removes the punishment of karet altogether, since anyone can claim “some impediment” that gets in the way. Anyone at all can thereby opt instead to keep the second Passover one month later. But the second Passover (unlike the first) is optional. So even if the individual misses the second Passover too, no punishment results.

By analogy, we may say that today, the obligation to hold or attend a seder is absolute – the single most telling expression of identification as a Jew. But Jews who do not keep it should be understood as suffering from “some impediment” that psychologically distances them from their people, not as sinners who deserve our scorn.

If that is true of the seder, which most Jews love attending and for which so many opportunities exist, all the more so is it true of the rest of Jewish life. Take Jews who belong to no synagogue, even though we reach out and say, “Come in.” We should be that welcoming, and many of us are, but when they fail to take us up on our offer, we become defensive and blame them instead of seeing, as the gemara does, that even though they are at our doorstep, they may still be a long distance off.

The most important lesson here is to drop our self-righteousness and keep the door open. Jews with complex relationships to Judaism deserve our support as they figure things out. Passover will come round next year and who knows? Maybe if we are patient, their psychological distance may lessen and they will come in then.