In the beginning of yesterday’s new chapter, we opened with an analysis of what is not permitted when it comes to lulavs: both stolen and completely dried out lulavs are off-limits. Other aesthetic and geographic restrictions follow in the mishnah, but the rabbis are most drawn to the question of why a stolen lulav is unfit for use.
Rabbi Yohanan in the name of Rabbi Shimon ben Yohai provides a straightforward, legalistic answer:
It is unfit because it is a mitzvah that comes to be fulfilled by means of a transgression.
It may be straightforward reasoning, but this is a profound statement: The ethical background of our ritual items matters. Even for the most punctilious lulav shaker who aims to obey all the laws laid out in our tractate, her deeds are for naught if the lulav is stolen. Out of this, we can zoom out to a larger point: that our ethical and ritual lives cannot be separated but rather are intertwined.
The rabbis follow this with classic talmudic argumentation; they investigate prooftexts and introduce new categories that locate the discussion within the topic of theft. The conversation seems mostly settled. But with little explanation, we hear again from Rabbi Yohanan in the name of Rabbi Shimon ben Yohai who is curious about the meaning behind a verse in Isaiah: “For I the Lord love justice, I hate robbery in a burnt offering.” (Isaiah 61:8) Out of this verse, they draw out a parable:
A king was passing by a customs house.
He said to his servants: Pay the levy to the taxmen.
They said to him: Doesn’t all the tax in its entirety belong to you?
He said to them: From my conduct, all travelers will learn and will not evade payment of the tax.
So too, the Holy One, Blessed be He, said: I the Lord … hate robbery in a burnt offering. From my conduct, my children will learn and distance themselves from robbery.
Here, we see that God takes a direct interest in the human conduct on earth. One could imagine a God that looks at a stolen lulav and thinks: Why should that bother me whether this person or that person possesses the lulav? Everything is mine, so that lulav is mine, and it is being used to praise me! But this is not the case — God cares deeply about the actions of humans in the world andexpects that we will learn accordingly that if God cares, we ought to as well.
God does not just care about how we act but how our actions embody principles and values. Meir of Lublin, a 17th century Polish rabbi, in analyzing this text, expands upon the verse in Isaiah to read as follows: “For I the Lord love justice of humans that behave justly and do not engage in thievery or violence.” God does not love justice as an abstract concept but as one enacted by humans. When we create a world of care and justice, where the desire to seek justice truly drives human beings, we bring delight to God.
On a pedagogical level, the addition of the story is an instructive move by the Talmud. The tale concretizes an otherwise more abstract halakhic argument. Although the word “talmudic” has become synonymous with arcane and impenetrable, the Talmud often displays hospitality to its readers by providing multiple entrance points to comprehension.
Just as God aspires that we learn from God’s behavior, it’s likely that the Talmud also hopes that from its own idiosyncratic way of teaching, “my children will learn.” Instead of just providing one entrance point to a Jewish life or Jewish learning, we can follow the Talmud’s lead to think expansively and use multiple methods to engage Jews of diverse backgrounds and learning styles. And just maybe, that flexibility and expansiveness will draw us all a bit closer.
Read all of Sukkah 30 on Sefaria.