F. Scott Fitzgerald insisted, “There are no second acts in American lives.”
He was, of course, wrong. Americans love second acts. Consider this: The Great Gatsby was the number two movie at the box office this week—and Baz Luhrmann’s current production is the fourth film version of Fitzgerald’s classic 1925 novel. Our culture, high and low, is practically defined by second acts, from Thomas Jefferson (who lost the presidential election of 1796 to John Adams, then came back to defeat him in 1800) to Kim Kardashian.
Second acts are even more important in the Jewish world. Why? Because our tradition recognizes that since we fail so frequently, life without second chances would be impossible. Teshuvah—the opportunity to learn from our mistakes, make amends, and move forward—is at the very heart of Judaism.
When we sin at the Golden Calf, Moses smashes the tablets of the commandments—then goes back up and returns forty days later with a second set. The ensuing period of wandering in the wilderness is the story of our constant backsliding and failure. We complain and transgress and sorely try the patience of both God and Moses. But though they both get angry, neither ever really gives up on our ability to grow and, given a second (or third or fourth) chance, do better.
This week’s portion, B’ha-alotecha, describes a holiday known as Pesach sheni. Rabbi Harold Kushner describes this event as follows: “People who were ritually impure (on the 14th of Nissan, when Passover fell, and therefore unable to properly observe the festival) felt deprived at not being able to share in this central national reaffirmation. They brought their problem to Moses, who in turn brought it before God. God acknowledges their sincerity and grants them a ‘second Pesach’ one month later. To the sincere individual, life often does offer second chances for spiritual fulfillment that may have been missed when the opportunities first presented themselves.”
As Kushner goes on to note, no one need feel permanently exiled or lost. The wicked child of the haggadah can, with a concerted effort, become the wise. This week, let us be thankful for the second chances that we receive, and generous in affording them to others.