I am always so inspired when a family with a child with special needs comes in to talk with me about their student’s religious education. With all the exhausting challenges parents often face — the logistical and emotional effort involved with their child’s health, education, and social well-being — the fact that they are passionate enough about their Judaism to want to ensure that their child will experience a bar or bat mitzvah, have a strong connection to Jewish tradition, and be an active part of the Jewish community, says a lot about their priorities and their Jewish soul.
At each of these meetings, I often think about an incident in parashat B’ha’a lot’kha. In the context of our Matan community, we are accustomed to talking about various kinds of disabilities – physical or psychological challenges, or special learning needs. But in this second portion in the book of Numbers, we find the case of a group of people with a spiritual disability.
Specifically, in Numbers, chapter 9, the Torah reviews the laws for observing the holiday of Passover, emphasizing the need for every Israelite to offer the appropriate sacrifice on the anniversary date of the exodus from Egypt. In fact, this observance is so crucial that the Torah says that one who willingly ignores it will be “cut off” from the rest of the community. But, the Torah continues, “[T]here were some men who were impure by reason of a corpse and could not offer the Passover sacrifice on that day. Appearing that same day before Moses and Aaron, those men said to them, ‘Impure though we are by reason of a corpse, why must we be debarred from presenting the Lord’s offering at its set time with the rest of the Israelites?’”
According to the Torah, sacrifices may only be offered when in a state of “taharah” – a term often translated as “purity” or “cleanliness,” but which I often translate as “spiritual readiness.” A main reason why a person is not in a state of “taharah” is due to direct or indirect contact with a dead body. A person might have been tending to someone who was ill, and the patient died in their presence. Or perhaps they attempted to revive someone unsuccessfully. Or maybe they were a pallbearer in a funeral for a loved one. For whatever reason, through no fault of their own, they are now “spiritually disqualified” because they had contact with a dead body, and are therefore not in an appropriate spiritual state to offer a sacrifice. Yet they very much want to participate in this annual ritual.
So they come to Moses. And Moses does not say, “Sorry, you’re out of luck. You have a ‘spiritual disability’ and so no Passover offering for you this year.” Instead, Moses says, “Stand by, and let me hear what instructions the Lord gives about you.” And it turns out that God has a simple solution: they can wait and offer the sacrifice on the same evening exactly a month later (an institution we call today “Pesah Sheini” or “second Passover”).
What a novel alternative! It’s interesting that Moses didn’t come up with it on his own, but he also trusts that God does indeed want to offer this group an opportunity to fulfill this powerful ritual. As we encounter the variety of abilities in our own communities, I hope we’ll keep this incident in mind: the loyalty and passion of this group of “spiritually disabled” men who are moved to participate in Jewish ritual and the celebration of Passover; the love and patience behind Moses’ efforts to turn to God for inspiration for a solution that could work for all involved; and God’s own creativity in finding an appropriate alternative for their full and meaningful participation in Jewish life and celebration.
Rabbi Jacob Blumenthal grew up in Rockville, Maryland, and was ordained at the Jewish Theological Seminary. He serves as the rabbi of Shaare Torah in Gaithersburg, Maryland, which is proud to host a Matan religious school program for students with special learning needs.