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by Michael Alterman    
Torah from Dixie Staff Writer    

The phone rings. . . "Hello, my name is Ed McMahon, and I'm calling on behalf of the world-famous American Family Publishers Sweepstakes. Are you sitting down, because I have some wonderful news for you.



The phone rings. . . "Hello, my name is Ed McMahon, and I'm calling on behalf of the world-famous American Family Publishers Sweepstakes. Are you sitting down, because I have some wonderful news for you. Believe it or not, YOU are this year's grand prize sweepstakes winner! 10 million dollars, all for you! So, now that you are a millionaire, what are you going to do?"

Throughout the Torah we find numerous descriptions of the shalosh regalim, the three pilgrimage festivals celebrated yearly by the Jewish people. No less than five times are these important days referenced by the Torah as a unit. Frequently, the Torah does not identify these festivals by their familiar names of Pesach, Shavuot, and Sukkot, but by other terms to which we are not generally accustomed. This week's portion of Mishpatim is an excellent example: "Three pilgrimage festivals shall you celebrate for Me during the year. You shall observe the Festival of Matzot. . .at the appointed time of the month of springtime, for in it you left Egypt. . .And the Festival of the Harvest of the first fruits of your labor that you sow in the field; and the Festival of the Ingathering at the close of the year, when you gather in your work from the field" (Exodus 23:14-16).

Notice that the festival commemorating the exodus from Egypt is not called Pesach in this verse, but rather "Chag HaMatzot Festival of the Matzot" celebrated in "chodesh ha'aviv the month of springtime." Similarly, the day on which the Torah was given is not labeled Shavuot, but "Chag HaKatzir Festival of the Harvest." Finally, the period on which we leave our homes in favor of temporary huts is not designated as Sukkot, rather "Chag HaAsif Festival of the Ingathering." By referencing the harvest and the ingathering of the fruits, and by stressing "the month of springtime," the Torah is focusing our thoughts on the agricultural elements of these celebrations. Observed at pivotal junctures in the farming cycle, the shalosh regalim are times to rejoice with the knowledge that the land has produced food for the upcoming year. In today's urban society, we might similarly rejoice in the knowledge that our paycheck continues to come on schedule. However, by accentuating the material blessings, these holy days that are replete with spiritual significance seem to be transformed into mere harvest festivals. Is that truly the Torah's intention?

To address this issue, the Ramban, one of the leading Torah scholars of the Middle Ages, directs our attention towards the next verse in the passage, wherein lies the key to the joy we feel on these occasions. The Torah commands that these celebrations shall be "before the Lord, Hashem" (ibid. 23:17). The shalosh regalim are unique opportunities for the Jewish people to gather together and give thanks to Hashem for providing us with sustenance. We must always remember who is the source of our happiness, hence these harvest festivals beckon us to travel to Jerusalem and give thanks to G-d for our bounty. While we are there, explains the Ramban, we are called upon to inquire what Hashem expects from us. Why did He shower us with His blessings? Find out while you are in Jerusalem, the verse declares, by studying the Torah and seeking out its righteous scholars. The celebration must be "before the Lord, Hashem."

The implication is that it is not sufficient for us to verbally express our hakarat hatov (appreciation) to Hashem for the wonderful things that happen to us. We are expected to convert those feelings of gratitude into action. We have become indebted to Hashem and are obliged to repay Him.

When tragedy strikes, people frequently question G-d's justice. We naturally ask, "why is He doing this to me?" and "what does He want from my life?" The lesson of the shalosh regalim is to have a corresponding response when something wonderful happens. "Why have I merited to celebrate this joyous family occasion?" or "how does G-d want me to spend this money that He has so kindly delivered to me?" Perhaps by considering these thoughts we will have a better idea how to respond when Mr. McMahon finally makes that momentous telephone call.


Mazal tov to Michael Alterman, the former assistant editor of Torah from Dixie, on his upcoming marriage to Chashy Feldman in Lakewood, NJ next Sunday. The couple will be living in Baltimore.

You are invited to read more Parshat Mishpatim articles.

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