MIshpatim: Festivals Link the Torah and Land of Israel

The seventy commandments in Yitro and Mishpatim are not a random selection. There is a theme and a lesson.

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Daniel Pinner,

Six Day War Paratroopers at the Wall
Six Day War Paratroopers at the Wall
David Rubinger

Seven weeks after leaving Egypt and six weeks after the Splitting of the Red Sea, we stood around Mount Sinai and received the Ten Commandments directly from G-d. After G-d had given the Ten Commandments, Moshe remained at the top of Mount Sinai. There G-d continued to give Moshe further Commandments; the subsequent 92 verses contain 54 mitzvot (following the count of the Rambam, the Sefer ha-Chinuch, and Mahara”m Hagiz).


This series of Mitzvot begins with the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai (Exodus 20:1-14) in last week’s Parashah, and concludes in this week’s Parashah with the three Pilgrimage Festivals (23:14-19).

And immediately following, G-d continues by admonishing: “Behold – I am sending an angel before you, to protect you on the way, and to bring you to the place which I have prepared” (23:20) – that is, to the Land of Israel, and specifically to the place of the Holy Temple.


This admonition to follow the angel to Israel and to obey him along the way (which sadly we failed to do in the sin of the golden calf and again in the sin of the spies) is the logical continuation of the immediately preceding Commandment, “Three times a year all your menfolk will appear before the Lord, HaShem” (v. 17): the angel was sent to show us the way to the place where this was to happen.


The Torah devotes a paragraph to this angel: “Beware of him and listen to his voice, do not rebel against him, for he will not forgive your sin – because My Name is in his midst. Because if you will diligently hearken to his voice…then I will be your enemies’ enemy and will persecute your persecutors. Because My angel will go before you and bring you to the Amorite, the Hittite, the Perizzite, the Canaanite, the Hivite, and the Jebusite. Do not bow to their gods, do not worship them, and do not do as they do…” (Exodus 23:21-24).


And then the Torah specifies the wonderful blessings that await us in our homeland, Israel: “There will be no woman who miscarries or who is barren in your Land; I will fill the number of your days, I will send the dread of Me before you, I will confound the entire nation among whom you will come, and I will make all your enemies turn their backs on you. I will send the hornet before you, and it will expel the Hivite, the Canaanite, and the Hittite from before you” (vs. 26-28).


And as the next logical step, the Torah defines the borders of the homeland, the Land of Israel: “I will set your border from the Sea of Reeds [the Red Sea, in modern parlance] unto the Sea of the Philistines [the Mediterranean], and from the desert unto the River” (v. 31) – according to all opinions (Targum Onkelos, Targum Yonatan, Rashi, Ibn Ezra, Tosafot Gittin 8a s.v. Rabbi Yehudah omer, Radak to Psalms 80:11), this delineates the parameters of the borders of Israel as being from the Sinai Desert in the south-west to the River Euphrates in the north-east.


Then follows G-d’s promise that “I will deliver the inhabitants of the Land into your hand, and you will expel them from before you” (Exodus 23:31).


And the culmination of this is the two final mitzvot in the Parashah: “You shall not seal a covenant with them and their gods; they shall not dwell in your Land, lest they cause you to sin against Me by your worshipping their gods which will ensnare you” (vs. 32-33).


This concludes the series of 70 Mitzvot (17 in Parashat Yitro and 53 in Parashat Mishpatim).


Much has been written by many commentators about the progression of these 70 Mitzvot. They flow seamlessly from the mitzvot bein adam la-chaveiro (between man and his fellow-man) to bein adam la-Makom (between man and G-d), from the “religious” to the “civil”, from the “spiritual” to the “mundane”. One obvious inference is that the Torah governs all the Jew’s activities: honesty in business is no less a mitzvah than keeping Shabbat (20:8-11, 23:12), relieving a suffering animal of its burden (23:5) is as much a mitzvah as celebrating Shavuot (23:16), not taking bribery (23:8) is as much a mitzvah as keeping milk and meat separate (23:19), restoring lost property to its owner (23:4) is as much a mitzvah as sexual morality.


But the question remains: is this a random selection of mitzvot, or is there a connecting theme?


It seems to me that the first and last mitzvot in the sequence indicate the overall theme. The first mitzvah in the sequence is to know that G-d exists: “I am HaShem your G-d, Who brought you out of Egypt, the slave-house” (20:2), which constitutes the positive Commandment to know that G-d exists (Sefer ha-Chinuch, Mitzvah #25; Rambam, Laws of the Fundamentals of Torah 1:6). The last mitzvah in the sequence is not to allow idolatry or idolaters to dwell in the Land of Israel: “They shall not dwell in your Land, lest they cause you to sin against Me by your worshipping their gods which will ensnare you” (Exodus 23:33).


These two mitzvot complement each other in obvious ways: HaShem brought us out of Egypt, the slave-house, in order to bring us into the Land of Israel; allowing other gods and their worshippers to remain in the Land of Israel denies HaShem’s uniqueness.


All the mitzvot in this sequence, sandwiched between these two, follow the general theme: the Torah of Israel is directed towards the Land of Israel, the only place wherein the nation of Israel is complete and unified with its Torah. Only in the Land of Israel can the Jew be genuinely complete.


In countless places the Rabbis tell us that it is impossible for the Jew to truly worship G-d outside of Israel:


“Jews outside of Israel worship idols in purity” (Avodah Zarah 8a; Yalkut Shimoni, Exodus 400).


“Anyone who abandons the Land of Israel and goes out to other countries – the Torah considers him as if he worships idols” (Avot de-Rabbi Natan 26; Yalkut Shimoni, Leviticus 666).


“Anyone who dwells in the Land of Israel accepts the Kingdom of Heaven upon himself, and anyone who departs to outside the Land is like one who worships idols” (Sifra, Behar 5).


“A Jew should always live in the Land of Israel, even in a city where the majority are idolaters, and never live outside of Israel, even in a city where the majority are Jews; because anyone who lives in the Land of Israel is like one who has a G-d, and anyone who lives outside of Israel is like one who has no G-d” (Ketuvot 110b), which the Rambam cites as practical halachah (Laws of Kings 5:12).


The Tosefta (Avodah Zarah 5:2) analyses this and takes it further: “A Jew should always live in the Land of Israel, even in a city where the majority are idolaters, and never live outside of Israel, even in a city where all are Jews, which teaches that dwelling in the Land of Israel is equal to [fulfilling] all the mitzvot in the Torah”.


Yes, it really is a greater mitzvah to live in Umm el-Fahm or even Ramallah - or near it - than in Williamsburg or Crown Heights.


Thus the Midrash Halachah (Sifri, Eikev 43) tells us that the reason we keep the mitzvot in exile is “so that when you return they won’t be new to you”. And Rashi, based on this Midrash, says: “Even after being exiled, distinguish yourselves by mitzvot: put on Tefillin, make Mezuzot, so that these won’t be new to you when you return” (Commentary to Deuteronomy 11:18).


The three Pilgrimage Festivals encapsulate the idea that Judaism is inseparable from the Land of Israel. They commemorate specific events in our history (Pesach the Exodus, Shavuot the Giving of the Torah, and Sukkot the beginning of the construction of the Mishkan), and also mark the harvest seasons in the Land of Israel (Pesach the barley-harvest, Shavuot the wheat-harvest and the first-fruits, and Sukkot the ingathering of the final harvest of the year).


Only in the Land of Israel can the Jew celebrate both aspects of these Festivals.


The next Mitzvah we will encounter will be next week in Parashat Terumah – “They will build a Temple for Me and I will dwell among them” (Exodus 25:8), which constitutes the commandment to build the Holy Temple upon entering the Land of Israel (Rambam, Laws of the Holy Temple 1:1; see also the Ba’al ha-Turim and the Ohr ha-Chayyim to Exodus 25:8).


The Midrash tells us that G-d’s promise that “I am sending an angel before you, to protect you on the way, and to bring you to the place which I have prepared” (23:20) is “one of the scriptural references which prove that the earthly Holy Temple parallels the Heavenly Holy Temple” (Tanhuma, Mishpatim 18).


At this most pivotal juncture of our history, still standing enthralled around Mount Sinai, as yet unsullied by the sin of the golden calf, G-d set us on the path to the Land of Israel with His mitzvot.


By seamlessly combining all these different categories of mitzvot – bein adam la-chaveiro with bein adam la-Makom, “religious” with “civil”, “spiritual” with “mundane” – and by sandwiching them all between the mitzvah to know that G-d exists and the mitzvot prohibiting any covenant with idolaters and allowing them to remain in our Land, G-d taught us this most fundamental of principles.


The whole of Judaism is a single indivisible unit, which is inherently incomplete anywhere outside of the Land of Israel. The Jew who is dishonest in business is as much of a sinner as the Jew who desecrates Shabbat, and the Jew who lives outside of the Land of Israel is as cut off from authentic Torah as is the Jew who does not celebrate the three Pilgrim Festivals.