As a young teenager, Shmuel was not particularly keen on studying Talmud. But that’s what he was raised to do, and so off he went to an advanced yeshivah in Far Rockaway.

When he entered the office of the rosh yeshivah, Rabbi Shlomo Freifeld, for his admission interview, the rabbi asked him, “Do you want to learn?”

Shmuel candidly replied, “No. But I want to want to learn.”

To which Rabbi Freifeld replied, “OK, you’re in.”

A Disgrace, or Not?

In Parshat Behaalotecha, G‑d appears to Moses and instructs him to inform the Jewish people that they are to offer the Paschal Lamb once again in the desert, as they did previously on the eve of their redemption in Egypt:

G‑d spoke to Moses in the Sinai Desert . . . “The children of Israel shall make the Passover sacrifice in its appointed time.”1

Rashi2 points out that this verse is not in the proper chronological place, as the chapters that precede it described events that happened afterward.While this isn’t necessarily a problem, for it is well known that the Torah doesn’t read in chronological order, there must be a reason for this deviation.

Rashi explains that it’s to avoid disgracing the people. You see, the Paschal Lamb described in these verses is the only one the Jewish people offered their entire time in the desert. Though they wandered about for 40 years, through all that time they offered no other Paschal sacrifice. To cover up this disgraceful blind spot, the Torah obscures the story somewhat, sticking it in a few portions down so as not to draw attention to it.

But is there really no good reason why the Jewish people didn’t bring the Pascal sacrifice all those years?

They actually had a very good reason. In fact, one could argue they even had two reasons:3

  1. There is a strong argument to say that the mitzvah of offering the Paschal Lamb—like many other mitzvot—only takes effect once the Jewish people settle the Land of Israel. Thus, the Jewish people abstained from offering it in the desert.4
  2. Back when the mitzvah of the Paschal Lamb was first given, the Torah clearly prohibits one who is uncircumcised from participating.5 With that in mind, it’s obvious why the Jewish people didn’t offer the Korban Pesach while in the desert—many of them weren’t circumcised yet!6

Considering both these reasons, why would it be “disgraceful to Israel” to say that they didn’t offer the Paschal Lamb all their time in the desert?

When You Really Care

There are technical answers one could explore in the study halls,7 but I’d like to propose a simple answer: The shame here is not so much that the Jewish people didn’t bring the sacrifice, but that they didn’t want to bring it.

Consider another, similar story in our parshah, that of the Pesach Sheni, the “Second Passover.” We read the well known story of a group of people who were impure and unable to bring the Paschal sacrifice. These were the pallbearers of Joseph’s coffin, and so, their religious absence was perfectly justified. They could have said, “Alright, we’re off the hook. It’s not our fault, we’re taking one for the team. Let’s go grab a drink. Bye.”

And you know what? That would have been absolutely fine. Ethically, legally, religiously—you name it.

But they didn’t do that. They came clamoring to Moses, “Why should we lose out?”

How could they? Is it not unscrupulous, impudent even? The rules are the rules, sorry. “You missed the train, nothing more to discuss.”

Maybe. But these pious Jews didn’t take no for an answer. Why? Because they really cared. They were aware of the legal dispensation at their disposal. But they weren’t looking to discharge an obligation, rather they wanted to feel close with G‑d and be afforded the opportunity to realize that closeness with the glorious religious experience of the Paschal sacrifice. So they stamped their feet and demanded, “We want it!”

And guess what? G‑d was moved. He took notice of their passion and care and said, “Give them a second chance.” And so, the “Second Passover” was born.

When the rules pencil you out, but you really care, then change the rules!

At Least Want It!

Contrast that with the rest of the Jewish community in the desert with ready explanations for their lackluster Paschal sacrifice observance. “It’s not our fault! It’s too dangerous to circumcise ourselves in the desert! And besides, this whole thing doesn’t apply until we get to Israel, so what’s the big deal?”

“You’re right, you’re right,” one would say. “But you’re also wrong. You know why? Because if you really cared about the beauty of the mitzvah, you wouldn’t fall back on excuses and legalese. Bang on the table, make a tumult, at least show that you want this. Don’t go down without a fight!”

That’s the disgrace here. They didn’t even want it.

Want to Want

No one is perfect, and it’s impossible to expect to check off every box in your ethical life, religious life, family life, and whatever other life you have that’s worth talking about.

No one will argue with you about that. But there’s a baseline that you should always expect from yourself: at the very least, maintain a healthy desire for the right thing. And if you don’t want to, then want to want to. If you don’t want to want, then want to want to want. You get the idea.

There’s tremendous value to keeping tabs on your “desire compass.” What do you really want? If it’s another vacation, just to be “free,” or any other form of hedonism or laziness, then we have a problem. You’re not expected to transform into Moses overnight, but as much as you can, summon up the desire to do and be the right thing.

And here’s the crazy thing: Even if between me and you, we both know that you’ll never get there, there’s still value in wanting to get there.

You can’t finish the entire Talmud in your lifetime? Fine. Want to! It’ll keep you a lot truer and straighter than if you don’t even care to want it in the first place.

Can’t yet keep kosher every day and everywhere in your life? Can’t be a perfect parent, spouse, child, or friend every second of your life?

The first step is to simply want it. For real. You may never get there, but tell that silly realist inside of you that you want it anyway. Let’s see who wins.8