Hillel the Elder saw a skull floating on the water and said ‘Because you drowned others they drowned you, and those that drowned you will be drowned.’ (Sukkah 53a)
This is commonly referred to as karma or as [reward and] punishment — measure for measure. Act good and good things will happen, act bad and bad things will happen. In the grand scheme it really is that simple, but of course it doesn’t always play out how we would expect. Rather, we wonder why bad things happen to good people and vice versa.
Punishment is a harsh word. Why is it that God from the Old Testament is seen in secular literature as a vengeful God, while the New Testament portrays a forgiving One? We won’t get into that here except for the idea that we focus too much on the negative, on God as a Punisher. Instead, we may view reward and punishment as cause and consequence, a natural output to any given input. If you stub your toe you will feel pain; if you eat food you will feel satiated. Again, if only it were that simple, but it’s a useful mental model for me.
Relatedly, in Makkot 7a-b we learn that in a case of unintentional but somewhat negligent murder, a form of modern ‘manslaughter,’ the killer is exiled. Specifically, if someone is coming down a ladder, slips and falls on someone below and kills them, the killer must go into exile.
Later, on Makkot 10b, we see divine providence at play in that above scenario: the victim had previously committed intentional murder and so was liable for the death penalty, but escaped capital punishment due to legal technicalities such as lack of witnesses. On the other side, the unintentional killer had previously committed unintentional murder but escaped the exile punishment, also due to lack of witnesses. Therefore, God arranged a scenario where the intentional killer gets killed and the unintentional killer is forced into exile. Just desserts for each.
Someone who had witnessed just the ladder incident may suffer a crisis of faith. How could God allow such things to happen, let alone orchestrate them? Only with a higher perspective, which may be given to us later or not at all (in this world), do we see God’s justice at work.
The Mishna on Sukkah 53b discusses the shofar blasts in the Temple — good timing, seeing as we’re a few days away from Rosh HaShana when we sound the shofar — and specifies the blasts that were sounded on the eve of Shabbat. These blasts served as an alarm clock to cease from workday activities and to demarcate the mundane week from the holy Shabbat.
The Temple isn’t with us today but in Israel a siren is sounded across the country every Shabbat-eve. We’re practicing for the main event, may it be speedily in our days.
Such a siren is also sounded in some diaspora Jewish communities. I suppose the Ramban, who declared Torah observance outside Israel as practice for within Israel— unclear how literally he meant that, but in any case that stance is largely repudiated — I suppose he would call it ‘practice squared.’
Study technique: when we are taught lists, how do we know if the enumerated items are exhaustive or just examples? We know they’re examples if we can think of items that qualify to be on the list but are left out. (Sukkah 54a)
The Mishna and ensuing Gemara on Sukkah 55b discuss how to allocate the Temple offerings among the priestly officers. It ends with:
‘Rabbi Yoḥanan said: Woe unto the nations of the world that lost something and do not know what they lost. When the Temple is standing, the seventy bulls sacrificed on the altar during the festival of Sukkot atones for them. And now that the Temple is destroyed, who atones for them?’
From here we learn that Jewish rituals, and the Temple service in particular, are not an isolated phenomenon specific to the Jewish nation. Just as God charges us with being a ‘light unto the nations,’ (Isaiah 49:6) so too our acts influence the entire world. Be nice; the world is a small town.
Masechet Sukkah ends with a story of a kohen’s (aka Jewish priest) daughter who assimilated to Hellenism during the Second Temple era, and due to her transgressions her father’s entire kohanic group was penalized. The Gemara questions whether it’s fair to punish a whole group for one member’s child’s behavior, and Abaye answers that a child’s behavior is learned from their parents. The line of questioning continues: do we punish the entire group for one member’s behavior? Abaye answers yes: ‘woe unto the wicked, woe unto his neighbor.’
Relatedly, on a grander scale, we are taught elsewhere that all of the Jewish nation are responsible, guarantors, for each other (Shavuot 39a).
Further developing this theme of national — or even global — reward and punishment, is the parable of the small wooden boat. If one digs a hole under them it threatens everyone else on the boat. The Jewish nation is like a boat. Even one hole is no good, every oar should be in sync.
Lastly, finishing on a happy note, the Gemara teaches the converse: ‘Good for the righteous, good for his neighbor, as it is stated: “Say you of the righteous that it shall be good for him, for they shall eat the fruit of their doings.” (Isaiah 3:10)
Mazal tov and shkoyach on learning some masechet Sukkah! May we merit to return and learn it again. Next (aka tomorrow) we start masechet Beitzah.
- Yona Dov (aka Zach)