The Gemara1 relates that when Moshiach comes the nations of the world will see the great reward awaiting the Jewish people for their performance of the mitzvos. They will then ask God to also be given opportunity to earn such a reward. God will respond with an “easy” mitzvah- the mitzvah of sukkah.
However, as soon as they finish building their sukkos and get comfortable within them, God throws them a curve ball. He “unsheathes” the sun making it unbearably hot. Unable to withstand the heat, each and every non-Jew will kick his sukkah and leave.
The Gemara continues by questioning this incident. Why are the nations of the world criticized for leaving? Afterall, there is no obligation to sit in the sukkah if by doing so one will experience significant pain or discomfort. The Gemara then answers, “Granted that one is exempt from performing the mitzvah and is permitted to leave, but should one kick it?” For that kick, we are taught, they lose their chance to earn an eternal reward.
On the surface this incident doesn’t make any sense. God seems to be playing with the gentile nations, giving them a mitzvah on one hand, but not giving them the circumstances to fulfill it on the other.
My husband recently made a comment that offers a new perspective on this Gemara. He asked why do the non-Jews in question kick the walls of the sukkah? What did the sukkah do to them? It didn’t cause the heat. If they had screamed at the sun, at least that would have been a bit more logical– but only a bit. The sun itself has no control over the heat that it gives off. Both the sukkah and the sun are just intermediaries.
So, let’s put this into perspective…
God gives the nations of the world a mitzvah, in the Days of Moshiach. This is a time when God’s Ominipotence and intimate involvement in every aspect of creation will be revealed and known to all.2 Yet in the face of a single setback, they will have already forgotten about Him!
Perhaps, God does not really expect the gentile nations to fulfill the mitzvah of sukkah. Perhaps, God is solely looking for their acknowledgement of His Guiding Hand hidden behind the mask of this world. For that they would have been eternally rewarded.
The Sun Unsheathed Part 1: A Revelation of Essence
There is another question that we can ask about the above Gemara, and that is: what is the significance behind God unsheathing the sun? God could have seemingly achieved the same results through other means, like a down pour of rain or hail, an intensely cold wind, or the sudden appearence of wild animals.
To better understand why God chose this medium in particular, we need to look at the other instances where the concept of unsheathing the sun is mentioned.
Hashem appeared to him [Avraham] in the plains of Mamre,
and he was sitting at the entrance of the tent because the day was hot.
Let’s set the scene…
It’s the third day after Avraham performed his circumcision– a time when the pain is the most intense and the recipient is the most weak. The Gemara3 opens with the question: What is the meaning of “the day was hot”? It goes on to explain that to spare Avraham the physical strain of having to host and attend to guests, God unsheathed the sun so that no one would be traveling that day.
This doesn’t deter Avraham, however. First, he sends his servant Eliezar to see if there were any passersby to invite in. When his servant fails to spot anyone, Avraham realizes that if he wants guests he must go seek them himself. He thus makes his way to the entrance of his tent where he encounters God’s Presence. God was paying Avraham a visit.
God then decides to give Avraham what he longs for: three angles disguised as travelers. Avraham sees these “men” and is overjoyed. When he notices them stop at a distance, he assumes that they do not wish to trouble him. He instantly ignores his pain and rushes towards them to invite them in.4
This Gemara seems very puzzling and requires explanation, in particular:
- First, similar to what was mentioned above, why does God “unsheathe the sun” when He could have used other means to discourage travel? Though Avraham was originally inside his tent, wouldn’t the heat alone make his own recovery process more difficult?
- Why does God only appear to Avraham when he goes to the entrance of his tent? Why didn’t He visit him inside his tent where it would have been more comfortable for him?
- Why does God have the three melachim stop at a distance, which required Avraham to run out toward them in order to invite them in? Why didn’t He just send them to the tent’s entrance?
Taken together, God’s behavior towards His beloved Avraham seems rather peculiar, even callous. What’s going on here?
The answer distinguishes Avraham, who is the spiritual father of the Jewish people, from the nations of the world.
Avraham longed for guests because his whole life was devoted to the service of God. For him that meant doing kindness to others, bringing them close, and inspiring them to also learn about and serve God. To him, this was more than a way of life. It was life itself.
The intensity of the sun did not discourage Avraham from this goal… nor for that matter, his advanced age and his current pain and weakness. In fact, it was quite the opposite. Where others would have seen an obstacle, an excuse to just kick back and do nothing, Avraham only saw another opportunity to serve God.
The Torah states, “he was sitting (ישֵׁב) at the opening of the tent.” The word “ישב“ can also mean “to permanently dwell.” In other words, he lived life perpetually at “the opening of the tent,” always on the lookout for any opportunity to serve God through acts of kindness. It didn’t matter what the circumstances were.
The Sages explain that God visited Avraham on that day to honor and acknowledge the new spiritual heights he had just attained through the mitzvah of circumcision. God then gave Avraham the biggest, most desirable gift He could– the ability to give this new spiritual level expression in the physical world through an act of kindness.
The light of the sun is associated with clarity, revelation, and undiluted Truth. When the sun is “unsheathed,” there is no shade to sit under nor wall to hide behind. It is a state where everything is laid bare. All is revealed for what it truly is. God unsheathes the sun, and the result is a revelation of Avraham’s exceptional spiritual essence and character.
The Sun Unsheathed Part 2: Reward and Punishment
Elsewhere, the Gemara5 states that in the Days of Moshiach there is no Gehennom. Rather, God unsheathes the sun. The tzaddikim (the righteous) will then be cured by it, while the reshaim (the wicked) will be judged by it. We find the same idea mentioned in the last book of the prophets6:
The day is coming, burning like an oven, when all the wicked people and the evildoers will be like straw and Hashem will burn them up and totally consume them. But a sun of righteousness and healing will shine for those who fear my name, with healing in its rays
The Days of Moshiach have always been clouded in obscurity. The Sages offer many, often contradictory opinions about how this era will come about and what exactly it will look like when it does. However, almost all agree that it will be a period of universal God Awareness. Peace and prosperity will also reign to benefit all of mankind.
Surrounded by overwhelming abundance, we will no longer have to work for a living. Our time will thus be free to contemplate God and study His Torah. Ultimately, all the nations of the world will be inspired to join the Jewish people in this endeavor.
But how does this fit with the prophecy of harsh judgments, the violent imagery of an unsheathed sun and a scorching oven that God will use burn up the wicked and totally consume them? It seems to be in complete contrast to the idyllic vision of this era that both Chazal and the prophets have painted.
Then again, perhaps the unsheathing of the sun has nothing to do with violence or even strict judgment…
There is an inherent duality to the sun’s nature: one creative, the other destructive.
On the creative side, the sun’s rays dispel darkness and illuminate the world. They are a source of warmth and a conduit of transformative, life-giving energy. Throughout ancient and modern history, the unique therapeutic and healing properties of the sun’s light have been successfully harnessed to treat wounds, fight a variety of diseases, and restore both mental health and physical well-being.
But, the sun has a darker, destructive side, too. The sun’s scorching heat shines indiscriminately on the world, drying out water ways, parching land, degrading materials, and fading colors. Overexposure to the sun can damage the skin and sap us of energy. Sun spots and other solar aberrations may also encourage a number of diseases and negatively effect mental health.7
So, who or what determines whether the sun will be a source of creation, growth, and healing versus destruction, death and disease?
The answer is, the individual himself.
A fundamental teaching in Torah observant Judaism is that our experiences in this world are a direct reflection of our own thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. Our inner world literally creates our external reality on both a physical and spiritual level.
The concept of “unsheathing the sun” is really just a preparation for Olam Haba (The Next World). In The Next World, all will be revealed for what it is. Those who spent their lives in pursuit of spiritual growth and refinement, those who yearned for God and strove to uncover the truth of His Presence and involvement in all aspects of creation, will continue a similar spiritual journey in the World to Come.
For such individuals, the sun’s undiluted radiance will represent a clear revelation of God’s hidden light in the world. Since this is what they have been looking for all along, the experience will be a source of comfort, healing and joy.
On the other hand, those who lived their lives solely focused on “everything under the sun,” the physical world and its pursuits, will have a very different experience. When God will unsheathe the sun and reveal the light of His Presence, they will neither understand nor know what hit them. They will see the radiant Truth before their very eyes, yet be unable to act in accordance with it. Instead, it’s very existence will be an obstacle and an irritant, since this light will destroy the illusion that the physical world and all that it offers stands on its own.
This is precisely what happens to the gentile nations in the future as they sit in their sukkos. These individuals are non-Jews who in their lifetime shunned the Sheva Mitzvos Bnei Noach (the Seven Noahide Commandments) that God provides for the Nations of the World.8 It’s not that God is playing with them. Their experience is simply a consequence of their own inner reality. God will unsheathe the sun, and the result will be a revelation of their physicality and coarse character.
- Avoda Zara 3a,b
- As it says, “And the LORD shall be King over all the earth; on that day shall the LORD be One, and His Name one.” Zechariah 14:9
- Bava Metzia 86b
- Rashi on Bereshis 18:2
- Nedarim 8b
- Malachi 3:19-20
- See Rabbi Yonasan Eybeschitz, Ya’aros D’vash 2:12
- Sanhedrin 56a