Yesterday’s section concluded with the statement that even if the nations of the world observe the Noahide commandments, they still do not receive a reward for doing so. Today’s section begins with a critique of that view.
R. Meir uses the fact that the verse uses the word, “a man,” by that implying any man, to teach that non-Jews receive reward for the Torah they study and the mitzvot they perform. We should note that this sugya is a great example of the multi-vocality of the Talmud. Within a few lines of text we have two diametrically opposed positions. The Talmud will harmonize these views but this does not negate the fact that both are allowed room to exist.
The resolution is that non-Jews who perform commandments do receive a reward, albeit not one as great as Israel who is commanded to perform the mitzvot.
We now return to the main thread of the aggadah—the dialogue between God and the nations of the world. I think we can see this claim coming a mile away. Why are the non-Jews punished for not observing the Torah? Do they Jews do such a good job? One need not read far into the Bible to find Jews committing sins rampantly. God attempts to find witnesses to testify that Israel does observe the Torah. Stay tuned—the drama continues tomorrow!
At the end of yesterday’s section, God said that the heavens and the earth would testify that Israel has observed the Torah. Today’s section begins with the response of the nations.
All of these sources and derashot prove that the existence of heaven and earth depend on Israel performing the commandments. This makes them partial witnesses, who are not likely to testify that Israel did not perform the commandments. The notion that the world depends on the performance of the commandments is one found throughout rabbinic literature. The mitzvoth have cosmic importance.
God responds that non-Jews themselves can testify that Israelites did not sin. The aggadah now lists some well-known non-Jews throughout history who interacted with various Israelites who did not sin. Most of these are probably familiar episodes. Bildad, Zophar and Eliphaz are the friends of Job who urge him to curse God. Job does not. (Elihu son of Barachel is also a friend of Job, but according to another section of the Talmud, he was Jewish). This brings us back to the verse from Isaiah 43:9 which is the backbone of the entire derashah.
The nations now plead before God, asking God for in essence a second chance. God responds with a famous statement, that even has echoes in the Gospels. However, God does offer them an easy mitzvah to keep. Stay tuned for tomorrow where we see if the nations can keep the mitzvah of sukkah!
At the end of yesterday’s section, God offers the nations the opportunity to fulfill the mitzvah of the sukkah, even though the end of days is already here. Today’s section asks whether mitzvoth can be fulfilled at the end of days. Or is it too late then.
How can God offer a mitzvah to the nations to perform in the world to come? According to a very common Jewish idea, the mitzvoth are to be performed in the here and now, today. The end of days is when people will be rewarded for their performance, but by that point it is too late to actually perform them.
God wanted to give the nations a second chance. This is God after all—He makes up the rules!
Sukkah is an easy commandment because it does not cause any financial loss. This is different from something like peah (leaving the corners of your field for the poor) which obviously does cause a financial loss.
The non-Jews go out and make sukkot, but God causes it to be so hot that they tear them down immediately. There is a pun being made on this verse—the last word is “עבות “which is also used in Psalms 118:27, which is connected in rabbinic thought with Sukkot.
If God wanted to give the non-Jews a chance to keep the mitzvot, why did he make it so hot for them in the sukkah? The answer is that Jews also have end up sitting in the sukkah when it is quite hot. I can testify to this myself—it can get quite toasty in the sukkah when Sukkot falls early in the season. The next problem is that Jews do not have to sit in the sukkah if its boiling hot and makes them uncomfortable. So why blame the non-Jews for leaving the sukkah in the same situation? The answer is that while Jews need not sit in the sukkah when it’s hot, they should not kick it when they go out.