Sukkot—Assessing Risk & Ritual, 5781

One of my favorite talmudic passages from Tractate Sukkah, page 26a, reads:

Statement: Guardians of gardens and orchards are exempt from sukkah dwelling both during the day and at night.

Challenge: Why can’t they just build a sukkah [in the garden or orchard], and dwell in it there?!

Response #1: Abaye quotes Leviticus 23:42 : “In sukkot shall you reside…” Reside as you [normally] dwell. (In other words, move your home “stuff” into your new temporary dwelling place.)

Response #2: Rava said: A breach invites the thief. (If she is in the sukkah & unable to see the entire field, a thief might know this and more easily plan & implement their theft.)

Resolution: What is between them? How do their positions practically differ?  The difference is a case where she is guarding a pile of fruit. (Rava’s position: one could do that in a sukkah, and is still, therefore, generally obligated.)
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Here’s what’s happening: The general rule is that those who are preoccupied and unable to fulfill the obligation of sukkah dwelling, are exempt. Their status as “involved” with another matter, like an explicit mitzvah, or travel, or contracted work, alters what the Torah expects of them in certain circumstances. I love this about halakhic determinations. They are so often consequential & situational.

In this case, according to Abaye, guardians could never appropriately fulfill the sukkah obligation, because being out in the fields wouldn’t allow for the ideal sukkah to be constructed and furnished, one in which we displace the nicest things from our homes, like linens and dishes and the like, to our sukkot. Therefore, any attempt at dwelling would fall short of what the Torah intends for us.

Rava doesn’t seem to be concerned about the overall nature of the home-styled sukkah obligation, but rather he has a situational worry–in trying to observe the obligation in a less than ideal spot, something bad may happen which could have been avoided.

The Netziv (R’ Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin, 1816 – 1893) sees a deeper dispute between these Sages and their understanding of the Leviticus verse. He believes that according to Abaye, the creation of home outside that somewhat mirrors the inside is a “mitzvah le’ikuva,” a necessary condition for which if not fulfilled, the mitzvah itself… is never fulfilled. In other words, if one can’t create such a mirrored outside home, the Torah’s demand on us will also have us falling short.

But, says the Netziv, Rava sees it differently. He believes the obligation of sukkah, as prescribed by Leviticus, is a “mitzvah be’alma,” more situational, to be fulfilled by simply getting inside of a halachically built sukkah (3 walls, temporary roof) for a meal or sleep—whenever it can happen without negative consequences. Which, according to Rava, in this situation, could not happen because of potential theft.

The core disagreement framed by the Netziv between Abaye and Rava is relevant & instructive. The idea of Torah creating an ideal to which we must all measure ourselves, equally, vs. an understanding that while there may in fact be an optimal way to perform our obligations, not all of us are in an equitable situation with which to do so—speaks to so much of life today. Especially religious life in the Covid era.

For Abaye, the perfect over the good. For Rava, the good, or the possible, can transcend the perfect, in the right circumstances—based on potential consequences. (See, for instance: conversations about November 3 election.)

For Abaye, one standard for all to aspire toward. For Rava, we are each held to what’s actually possible in any given moment, assuming it doesn’t create unnecessary risk. (Sound familiar?)

The right answer? Yes. Sometimes I find myself giving up if I can’t do it exactly the way I want. And other times I do the best I can with what’s available to me.

The past seven months have proven this tension over and over again. Especially the High Holy Days. Ideal? Desired? Probably not for most of us (though for some who already regularly participatee virtually, much better). But we certainly Rava-ed to unexpected beauty.

Think about the shiva minyanim we’ve attended (or forgone) over zoom. Many of which we may never have been able to previously attend. It’s not the same as showing up in person. It’s just not, if also quite special. An Abaye world-view would have us wait until conditions are ideal to offer the perfect, physically-present condolence.  A Rava world-view asks us to determine what can be done, and what the consequences may be if we don’t do it.

We’ve stretched ourselves so much to live Rava’s system with full hearts & optimism. And while we can still dream of an Abaye world, while we can still pursue it, let’s also acknowledge that most often we are doing the best we can with what we’ve got. And that we must protect ourselves and others from danger, despite the potential loss of beloved rituals. And we can celebrate that, too.

And, please, let’s all of us give others the benefit of the doubt. A Rava system asks us to respond with humility to the ways in which we see others participating (or not). We can’t always know from what or from whom they are protecting themselves, or even what choices another actually has.

We’re all in this together, different from each other as we may be. We can’t ever forget that. And this holiday is built for this moment.

Moadim L’simcha.

About the Author
Rabbi Aaron Alexander is Co-Senior Rabbi of Adas Israel Congregation in Washington, D.C. He previously served as Associate Dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at American Jewish University.
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