R. Hanina b. Papa, and according to others, R. Simlai, lectured: In the future to come, HaQadosh barukh Hu (HQBH) will take the seifer Torah and rest it on His “Chest” and say, “Whomever was occupied in it, let them come and take their reward!”
Immediately, all the nations will gather and come in a mixed chaos… But HQBH said to them, Do not come before Me in a mixture, rather enter nation by nation with their scribes.”…
The Roman Empire entered first…. HQBH asked them, “With what did you occupy yourselves?”
They say before Him, “Ribbono shel olam, we established many markets, many bathhouses, we multiplied much gold and silver. And all this we only did for the sake of Yisrael, so that they may learn Torah.”
HQBH answered, “Fool of this world! Everything you did you did for your own needs. You made marketplaces for housing prostitutes, bathhouses to relax in yourselves, and the silver and gold is Mine! … Is there no one among you who studied this [Torah]…?”
The Roman Empire leaves, and the Persian Empire enters after it… HQBH said to them, “With what did you busy yourselves?”
They say before Him, “Ribbono shel olam, we built many bridges, conquered many cities, wages many wars. And all this we only did for the sake of Yisrael, so that they may learn Torah.”
HQBH answered, “Everything you did you did, you did for your own needs. You built bridges to collect fines. [Conquered] cities, to get control of the property. And the wars — it was I Who waged them! Is there no one among you who studied this [Torah]…?”
Immediately they left in despair. … And similarly the other nations…
Rabbi Yochanan said: [At the time of Sinai] … HQBH returned the Torah to each nation and language, and none accepted it until he came to Israel and they did…
[In the future to come] they said before Him, “Ribonno shel olam, give it to us now anew, and we will keep it.”
HQBH said to them, “Fools of the world! Someone who worked on erev Shabbos will be able to eat on Shabbos. Someone who didn’t toil on erev Shabbos, what will he have to eat on Shabbos? But I have one easy mitzvah, it is called ‘sukkah‘. Go and do it.” … Why is it called an “easy mitzvah“? Because it doesn’t cost much.
Immediately each one will take, go and build a sukkah on his roof. HQBH shines on them a sun as in the heat of summer. And each and every one kicks their sukkah and leaves…
But doesn’t Rava say “Someone who is uncomfortable [because of the sukkah] isn’t obligated to sit in the sukkah?” Yes, they aren’t obligated, but do they have to kick it?
Immediately, Hashem sits and smile over them. As is says, “Who sits in heaven will smile, Hashem will laugh at them.” R’ Yitzchaq says: There is no smiling before HQBH, except on that day.
– Avodah Zarah 2a-3a
A long aggadita, more than a blatt, about the fate of the nations at the culmination of history. I have heard discussions of the first part of the story, the various nations coming before G-d, and of the second part, about the test of the mitzvah of sukkah. Here I would like to address what the story as a whole may be saying.
(First, a side note: The tenses in the gemara are mixed. I’m sure there is significance to when the gemara borrows the “prophetic past” (being so sure about the future that it is written as though it happened already) and when it uses present or future tense. But I haven’t gleaned it.)
The Brisker Rav notes that Hashem calls the nations “fools” (shotim) not “liars”. When the nations claim they did it all for the sake of the Jews, that we may toil at Torah, they were not lying! They really were doing it for our sake, so that we can grow the seeds of redemption, and engages actively in Hashem’s plan for the world. However, at the time each empire developed society and contributed to mankind, their intent was for themselves. While they were serving Hashem’s plan, and enabling the Torah, they weren’t aware of it. And so Hashem calls them “fools”.
So the issue raised in the first half of the story is one of action vs. intent.
And the question the gemara closes with — since the sukkah is unbearably hot they wouldn’t be obligated to sit in the sukkah anyway. Hashem set things up so that they would have no obligation, no action. Their error was one of thinking that an action that aids Torah study was of the same value regardless of their intent, and Hashem’s consequent lesson is about intent without actually obligating them in any action! When they served Hashem’s plan, they did so unwittingly, and now that they have a channce to follow Him intentionally, they revert to rebellion!
Another piece to the story is the nature of the mitzvah of sukkah. The nations approach G-d boasting of their accomplishments, of their ability to “fill the earth and conquer it”, as Hashem blesses Adam in Bereishis 1. Sukkah, though, is stepping away from our own self-protection, to rely on a partnership between ourselves and the Creator for safety. (I am intentionally echoing R’ JB Soloveitchik’s dialectic between Adam I, the culmination of creation who comprehends and masters the world around him, and Adam II, who in chapter 2 of Genesis forms a covenental community with G-d, and through marriage with Eve, and seeks redemption through partnership.)
Of all the tools to teach the nations this dialectic, sukkah is very apt. Building marketplaces and bridges is great — but it’s not an end in itself. All of it exists for the sake of relating to others as Hashem intended us to; not power, wealth, comfort and pleasure for their own sakes.
Last, why does G-d laugh? Rabbi Yitzchaq says this is the only time Hashem truly laughs. (Although there is another opinion in the gemara as to what R’ Yitzchaq’s only time is.)
However, there is another aggadic story in which Hashem laughs — the tanur shel achnai story. The majority rule that such an oven, made of earthenware and cut into sections only joined by placing sand in the cracks, is a single utensil and can become tamei. R’ Eliezer disagreed, considering each brick independently, they are not utensils and can not become tamei. R’ Eliezer tried proving his correctness by argument, but he was ignored.
He then tried proving he was right by invoking Hashem’s endorsement. First a carob tree, upon his call to testify, uprooted and moved 100 to 400 amos. Then he asked a stream to testify, and it started flowing backwards. Then the very walls of the beis medrash the were in started leaning in, threatening to collapse until R’ Yehoshua told them it was not their concern, and they remained their, leaning. And finally even a bas qol outright said the law is like R’ Eliezer. Finally it was concluded that halachic process, including the rule of majority, determines halakhah, “it is not in the heavens.
R. Natan came upon Eliyahu. He said to him: “What was HQBH doing at this time?“
Eliyahu said to him: “He is laughing and saying, ‘My children have defeated me; My children have defeated me’.“
— Bava Metzia 59a-59b
We can not separate the two stories; Rabbi Ya’aqov says there is only one situation in which G-d laughs.
What do the two share in common? Human creativity evokes Divine laughter. It needn’t be derision, as we see from the tanur story. Hashem loves man’s creative impulse; it shows a being in the Image of the Creator. However, there needs to be a synthesis, a channeling of that creativity toward spiritual ends.
Rome comes to Hashem first of all the nations. Yitzchaq had a vision of how his sons would build a nation together. Esav, who is the ancestor (genetically or conceptually) of Rome, was to provide the resources. Yes, there would be a Roman Empire followed by a Western world and all its technological progress. But they were to be part of the house of Israel, the providers of the means. And thus, wanting to be builders is a good thing; if one is building with the right intent.
Generally, the laughter at the end of our story is taken to mean that Hashem laughs at the nations’ attempt to redeem themselves. However
אֱמֹ֨ר אֲלֵיהֶ֜ם חַי־אָ֣נִי ׀ נְאֻ֣ם ׀ אֲ-דֹנָ֣י יְ-הוִ֗ה אִם־אֶחְפֹּץ֙ בְּמ֣וֹת הָֽרָשָׁ֔ע כִּ֣י אִם־בְּשׁ֥וּב רָשָׁ֛ע מִדַּרְכּ֖וֹ וְחָיָ֑ה שׁ֣וּבוּ שׁ֜וּבוּ מִדַּרְכֵיכֶ֧ם הָֽרָעִ֛ים וְלָ֥מָּה תָמ֖וּתוּ בֵּ֥ית יִשְׂרָאֵֽל׃
Say to them: Say unto them: As I “Live”, declares the L-rd Hashem, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, rather when the wicked turn from his way and live; turn, turn from your evil ways; for why should you die, house of Israel?
— Yechezqeil 33:11
Hashem doesn’t laugh when the wicked prove themselves wicked. He laughs when they do teshuvah. I would suggest that the kicking of the sukkah is being presented as the moment in which they hit bottom. When they realize what they became, and regret sets in. Not that the Romans stop building markets, and the Persians their bridges, but they do so in dedication to proper ends.
It is okay for them not to feel like they sit in a sukkah. That’s for the geir vetoshav, the stranger-resident, that Avraham declares himself to be. But the other nations must know that we do belong there.
After all, right after this story, we have the time we pray for on Rosh haShanah and Yom Kippur, “and everything made will be in awe of You, and everything created will bow to You, and they will all be made into a single union to do Your will with a whole heart.”