The Two-Way Street | Two Interpretations of Parshat Mishpatim

Rabbi Avraham Bronstein
on February 18, 2020

The holiday of Sukkot makes an appearance at the end of Parshat Mishpatim. Whereas it is only defined here as an agricultural holiday — “the Feast of Ingathering at the end of the year, when you gather in the results of your work from the field” — it takes on a historical significance later in the Torah as well.

In the Book of Leviticus we read, “You shall live in booths seven days; all citizens in Israel shall live in booths, in order that future generations may know that I made the Israelite people live in booths when I brought them out of the land of Egypt, I the ETERNAL your God.”

It is not entirely clear, though, exactly when this would have taken place. Most readers will assume that these “booths” are the shelters within which the Israelites ostensibly dwelled as they left Egypt and began to traverse the wilderness. Indeed, the Talmud records a debate between Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Akiva as to whether these original booths were physical structures or “clouds of glory” that demonstrated God’s protective presence around the Israelite camp.

However, there is another opinion. R. Eliezer Rokeach (12th century, Worms), believed that Sukkot actually commemorates the huts that sheltered the advance camp as the Israelites began the conquest of their Promised Land. According to this interpretation, the holiday is not actually about God’s protection of the Israelite people from the harsh conditions of the desert, but rather of Israelite warriors from the enemy fighters defending their land.

Taken in this light, the cycle of pilgrimage holidays on the Jewish calendar forms a curious dual progression. On one hand, as they are listed in Parshat Mishpatim, they mark the three stages of the harvest season, beginning with Pesach and Shavuot in the spring and summer and culminating with Sukkot in the fall. In this sense, the festivals describe an organic connection between the Jewish people and their homeland.

On the other hand, Passover also tells us that the Israelites are not native to the land of Israel, but actually emerged from Egypt. The liturgy of the Bikkurim (first fruits) ritual associated with Shavuot continues the story by describing how God took the Israelites from Egypt and brought them to the land of Israel, underscoring the point that the Israelites were new additions to the land. Finally, Sukkot, at least according to Rokeach, reminds us that God did not lead the Israelites to an empty, uninhabited land; instead, at God’s command, they displaced the indigenous Canaanites and took it from them by force. Instead of reinforcing the Israelites’ connection to their land, this reading of the holiday cycle almost seems to undermine it!

Thinking of these two ways of understanding the holidays reminds me of the many individuals and organizations who work hard today at the complicated task of holding together Israeli and Palestinian narratives. Sometimes this takes the form of placing both narratives in contrast to each other, such as Neil Caplan’s The Israel-Palestine Conflict: Contested Histories or Sami Adwan, Dan Bar-On and Eyal Naveh’s Side by Side: Parallel Histories of Israel-Palestine. Sometimes there are even attempts at creating new, shared narratives, such as at the annual Combatants for Peace Israeli-Palestinian Memorial Ceremony. In any case, they contain the humbling truth that, for all of the meaning that our narrative contains for us, there is a corresponding narrative that often reads like a mirror image.

In the Torah, these two narratives — one of an innate Jewish connection to the land and one that challenges it — exist side-by-side within each of our festivals. Perhaps this explains another curious feature of the holiday cycle, a shift from the particular to the universal. It begins with Passover — the origin story of the Jewish people. It continues to Shavuot — the celebration of the Torah, which, though revealed to the Jewish people, contains universal truths and values. It culminates with Sukkot — a holiday in which, according to the rabbis, the temple service was dedicated on behalf of all the nations of the world. One might imagine an Israelite at that service thinking of the Canaanites who were the original inhabitants of the land he now celebrates. (It might have felt very similar to a contemporary Zionist Jew reflecting on Yom Haatzmaut!)

The message is unmistakable. Our connection to the land of Israel, as genuine and deep-rooted as it is, is not the result of an innate, timeless right of ownership. Rather, it is an opportunity to more broadly expand our capacity for empathy — beginning by recognizing the multiple narratives echoing through the land itself.

Avraham Bronstein is the rabbi of The Hampton Synagogue, Westhampton Beach, NY. He tweets at @AvBronstein.