Sukkah and Bechol Derachecha Daehu

A few days ago, a cousin of Ora’s asked me about a very strange Gemara in Avodah Zara 3a:

תלמוד בבלי מסכת עבודה זרה דף ג עמוד א -ב

 אמרו לפניו: רבש”ע, תנה לנו מראש ונעשנה, אמר להן הקב”ה שוטים שבעולם, מי שטרח בערב שבת יאכל בשבת, מי שלא טרח בערב שבת מהיכן יאכל בשבת? אלא אף על פי כן, מצוה קלה יש לי וסוכה שמה, לכו ועשו אותה. ומי מצית אמרת הכי? והא אמר רבי יהושע בן לוי, מאי דכתיב: +דברים ז+ אשר אנכי מצוך היום? היום לעשותם – ולא למחר לעשותם, היום לעשותם – ולא היום ליטול שכר! אלא, שאין הקב”ה בא בטרוניא עם בריותיו. ואמאי קרי ליה מצוה קלה? משום דלית ביה חסרון כיס. מיד כל אחד [ואחד] נוטל והולך ועושה סוכה בראש גגו, והקדוש ברוך הוא מקדיר עליהם חמה בתקופת תמוז, וכל אחד ואחד מבעט בסוכתו ויוצא, שנאמר: +תהלים ב+ ננתקה את מוסרותימו ונשליכה ממנו עבותימו. מקדיר, והא אמרת: אין הקדוש ברוך הוא בא בטרוניא עם בריותיו! משום דישראל נמי זימני

דמשכא להו תקופת תמוז עד חגא והוי להו צערא. והאמר רבא: מצטער פטור מן הסוכה! נהי דפטור, בעוטי מי מבעטי. מיד, הקב”ה יושב ומשחק עליהן, שנאמר: +תהלים ב+ יושב בשמים ישחק וגו’

 

The Gemara discusses the end of days, when the nations of the world will challenge God for unfairly rewarding the Jews.  When God tells them that they are rewarded for doing the mitzvot, they ask to be given the same chance.  After raising some objections, God offers them one mitzvah, an easy mitzvah:  sukkah.  They all go to build a sukkah.  Once they are in, God makes the sun blast full force, making it sweltering hot.  In disgust, the nations of the world kick their sukkot and leave.  At this God laughs – he has proven his point.  The Jews deserve the reward and the nations do not.  During this discussion, however, the Gemara notes that if it was really sweltering, one is not obligated to be in the sukkah – its mitzaer.  The Gemara responds that while the heat can provide an exemption, the Jews would have left without kicking the sukkah, thus distinguishing themselves from the nations of the world. 

 

Why of all mitzvot, is sukkah chosen?  I am sure many people ask this question and suggest answers.  I believe there is a passage in Pachad Yitzchak about it that R. Yitzchak Blau discusses on the VBM.  However, I wanted to run by what I suggested off the cuff in an alleyway in Meah Shearim. 

Sukkah, more than any other mitzvah, celebrates the possibility of the everyday having religious significance.  Whether one thinks that “teshvu k’ein taduru obligates a series of “living like acts”, or more likely, it requires you to “live everyday life” in the sukkah – the actions that become religiously significant are particularly mundane.  Eating, sleeping, schmoozing all become mitzvot.  According to Rambam (against Rabbenu Tam), one makes a bracha for simply walking into the sukkah.  More amazingly, as the Gemara here notes, if one is uncomfortable in the sukkah, he can leave, as one would not live that way. 

In short, sukkah allows us to recognize the possibility of bechol derachecha daehu – in all your ways know Him.  In a sense, that is less demanding that ritual mitzvot, but in a sense it is more.  There is no escape from Avodat Hashem.  Even the everyday must be understood as part avodat Hashem.  I would suggest that it was this perspective the Gemara assumes is particularly Jewish, rather than pagan.  Avodat Hashem is not primarily about ritual, while paganism is. 

I would suggest that this is what is highlighted by the mitzaer comment- Jews would leave when it is hot, recognizing that Hashem set up this mitzvah to be particularly human, and embrace the mitzvah, both its rules and exception. However, from the perspective a ritualistic religion, this exemption makes no sense.  Thus, the pagans could only view sukkah as their one ritual mitzvah, and when they are discouraged, they leave in disgust.  The possibility that God wants mitzvot to be human would not enter their minds.  To leave and recognize that sometimes one can serve God by recognizing human limits and remaining passive would not have entered their minds. 

This, I think connects to an earlier passage in that same Gemara.  The nations try to get rewarded for having built bridges and other infrastructure that allowed the Jews to learn Torah.  God responds that they built all of those things for themselves.  The implication, however, is that if they had built them for the sake of avodat Hashem, they would have been rewarded.  However, the Gemara’s vision is that pagans do not understand how everyday life can be spiritually meaningful, so they don’t build society for religious reasons.  They can’t celebrate sukkah.  They want religion to be about specific rituals which they do and get rewarded for.  [For another post, I think this is why only Jews can bring shelamim, while anyone can bring olot.  Vein Kan Makom LeHaarich.]

Anyways, if there are other thoughts, let me know.  In the meantime, Chag Sameach.  

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