Second Chance

Wednesday, April 28th is a holiday on the Jewish calendar — likely the least-known of all the Biblical celebrations.

It’s called Pesach Sheni (the “Second Passover”), and occurs on the 14th of Iyar, exactly one month after the first Passover.

A second Passover? We need two of them?

Truth be told, it is a little different from the original holiday:

•It is one day instead of seven (or eight in the diaspora); and

•We are permitted to eat chametz (leavened products) on that day.

Let us look at the biblical source for this one-of-a-kind holiday, today so little known that it is not even listed on many printed Jewish calendars.

We turn to the Book of Numbers ix:6-11:

“There were [certain] men who were impure because [they had come in contact with [a] human corpse and they could not bring the Passover offering on that day [i.e. the proper day for the offering]. They came before Moses … and said, ‘We are unclean … [but] why should we be held back from bringing the offering of G-d in its time?…

And Moses said to them, ‘Stand and hear what G-d will command concerning you.’

G-d said…, ‘If any man be impure … or on a distant way [on the day of the Passover offering]…, he shall sacrifice the Passover offering to G-d, in the second month [Iyar], on the fourteenth day at dusk….’”

In other words, if, as a result of being ritually impure, or even because one had willfully transgressed G-d’s will, one did not bring the Passover offering at its appointed time, one was given a second chance on Pesach Sheni (see Babylonian Talmud, Pesachim 93a).

This specified day of the second chance led me to think about the case of Sholom Rubashkin, the former Agriprocessors CEO who was convicted last November of bank fraud.

Like many other concerned individuals, I have been following this case and the call by some for harsh sentencing.

The prosecution has recommended a life sentence for Mr. Rubashkin — a non-violent, first-time offender.

Sentencing is due to take place this week, and at this writing, it appears possible that Linda R. Reade, the Chief Judge of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Iowa in charge of the case, might follow the prosecution’s recommendation.

The prosecution maintains that in accordance with federal sentencing guidelines, Mr. Rubashkin’s conviction rates a life sentence.

To a lay person, this seems troubling. It puts Mr. Rubashkin on par with a first-degree murderer.

Let me explicitly state here that I am in no way defending the actions for which he was convicted. My point (already made by others who are legal experts) is  that the sentencing recommendation does not seem to fit the crime.

One such legal expert is Alan Dershowitz.

In a widely circulated April 20 letter to Judge Reade, he notes his involvement in formulating the guidelines which form the basis for the prosecution’s position, which included working with the late Sen. Edward Kennedy.

“As someone who is intimately familiar with the thinking of those behind the sentencing guidelines,” he writes, “I am confident that they would have been distressed by the government’s position in this case and its misuse of the guidelines to try to secure a sentence well in excess of what Mr. Rubashkin’s actions, as well as his personal background, deserve.”

He concludes: “A single digit sentence would satisfy all the legitimate goals of the criminal justice system.”

Other experts, including former U.S. Attorney Brett Tolman and former federal judge Paul G. Cassel, have called the sentencing recommendation “draconian”.

In their letter to Chief Judge Reade they wrote:

“[T]he Government’s guidelines calculations seemingly call for the Court to impose a significantly longer sentence on Mr. Rubashkin than he would receive for second-degree murder, kidnapping, rape of child, or providing weapons to terrorist organizations.

“In fact, the Government’s guidelines calculations are so flawed that they imply that his sentence should be the same as if Mr. Rubashkin had committed first degree murder.”

In yet a third letter to Judge Reade, 11 former members of the U.S. Department of Justice state: “We cannot fathom how truly sound and sensible sentencing rules could call for a life sentence — or anything close to it — for Mr. Rubashkin….”

As I write these words, Mr. Rubashkin has yet to be sentenced.

But Mr. Rubashkin ought to be able to hope — as anyone in his situation — that some day he will gain a second chance in life.

That can only happen if he is sentenced in a fair way, one commensurate with the crime he is found to have committed and in accordance with the principles of our American judicial system.

That is Pesach Sheni’s relevance. It speaks to us about those who — for physical and, perhaps even spiritual, reasons — find themselves in need of another opportunity to get life right.