The Torah column is supported by a generous donation from Eve Gordon-Ramek in memory of Kenneth Gordon.
It’s the first day of Sukkot and the Rabbi of Chelm, the city of holy fools, is sitting in his sukkah — with just a few masked guests sitting 6 feet apart. It’s a month before Election Day and, my oh my, have words been flying. He is in the sukkah because of today’s Torah reading:
The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: Say to the Israelite people: On the 15th day of this seventh month there shall be the Feast of Booths to the Lord, [to last] seven days. The first day shall be a sacred occasion: you will not work at your occupations; seven days you will bring offerings by fire to the Lord. On the eighth day you will observe a sacred occasion and bring an offering by fire to the Lord; it is a solemn gathering: you will not work at your occupations (Leviticus 23:33-36).
Sukkot, a favorite annual event, is filled with hospitality. Normally he welcomes friends, family and the community into the sukkah.
The guests ask, through their masks, “Where is everyone?”
The Rabbi of Chelm explains, “This year, because of the overriding mitzvah of pikuach nefesh, the preservation of human life, there are not many guests. We learn this from the Talmud, Yoma 85b, interpreting Leviticus 18:5: ‘You will keep My laws and My rules … and live by them,’ and so our sages taught, ‘One will live by them, and not die by them.’
“The Talmud likes facts,” the rabbi continues. “If a person is starving on Yom Kippur, you feed that person. If a mask preserves life, you wear a mask. Pikuach nefesh is an enduring understanding.”
The guests ask, “But is not an argument from opinion, or a different political viewpoint?”
“Aha!” says the Rabbi of Chelm. “A sukkah does play a part in another enduring understanding: ‘These and these are the words of the living God, eilu v’eilu divrei Elohim chayim.’”
In the Talmud (Eiruvin 13b) we read: Rav Abba said in the name of Shmuel: For three years House of Shammai and House of Hillel argued. These said: The law, the halachah, follows us; and these said: the halachah follows us. Finally, a Bat Kol, a heavenly voice, issued forth and declared: Both these and these are the words of the living God, eilu v’eilu divrei Elohim chayim, but the halachah follows the rulings of House of Hillel.
The guests ask, “Aren’t the laws of the Torah perfectly understandable?”
The rabbi responds, “We learn from Nissim ben Jacob of Tunisia, and Yom Tov ben Avraham Asevilli of Seville, that, from the moment of the giving of the Torah, one could find more than one possible understanding. The living Jewish people reach an understanding in their own day and still the diverging opinions may have their place in another time. So, we say, all the words are the words of the living God.”
The guest asks, “But the why does the halachah follow the House of Hillel?”
The Talmud continues: “If someone’s head and the majority of the body were in the sukkah, but the table was in the house, the House of Shammai says this not sitting in a sukkah! The House of Hillel says, no, it’s OK. We know this because once the elders of Bet Shammai and the elders of Bet Hillel went to visit Rabbi Yohanan ben Hahoranit, and found him sitting with his head and the majority of his body in the sukkah but his table in the house.”
The guests: “What does that prove about the House of Hillel?”
“Because,” the Rabbi of Chelm explains, “the House of Hillel always included the House of Shammai in their teachings, even mentioning them first. That’s why college campuses have Hillel houses. Everyone is included. By the way, the House of Hillel agreed with the House of Shammai. Keep your mask on, head and body and table inside the sukkah.”
The Talmud concludes with these words for today:
One who raises themselves up, Ha Kadosh Baruch Hu, lowers.
One who pursues greatness, greatness flees.
One who flees from greatness, greatness pursues.
One who tries to force time, thinking that with sufficient efforts they will immediately succeed, they find themselves forced back by time and unsuccessful.
One who is patient and gives way to time, will find time giving way and standing for them, eventually bringing success.
By the way, the Rabbi of Chelm thinks that Rabbi Yohanan ben Hahoranit was the ancestor of Chelm. Who else would sit like that in a sukkah?