Mazal Tov! Today we have reached the final daf of Massechet Sukkah (Sukkah 56), yet like many final dapim, there seems to be an assortment of ideas that – on first glance – don’t necessarily fit together.
The daf begins by addressing the Mishna (Sukkah 5:7) which speaks of how kohanim served in one of 24 groups of watchmen in the Beit HaMikdash – each of which served for a week at a time. Significantly, throughout most of the year, only those whose ‘week’ it was were permitted to participate in the sacrificial service or receive a portion of the Kohanim’s share of korbanot. Yet what we learn from this Mishna is that during the Shalosh Regalim (Pesach, Shavuot & Sukkot), these divisions did not apply, and members of all 24 groups were given the opportunity – on an equal basis (כל המשמרות שוין) – to participate in the service and receive a share of the korbanot. What we learn from here is that sometimes our membership of particular groups or identities (in this case, whichever one of the 24 groups of kohanim) can be overridden by our membership of larger groups or identities (in this case, simply being a kohen).
Prompted by this discussion, while making reference to a prior debate between Beit Hillel & Beit Shammai, the Gemara then raises the question of which bracha comes first during the Kiddush of the Shalosh Regalim – that of the Chag itself, or Shehecheyanu? This practical question stimulates a series of arguments about precedence, but what is clear from here is that even when two brachot should be said on the same day, they cannot be said at once, and therefore a choice needs to be made about which should be said first, and which identity of the day takes precedence (to which the conclusion is סוכה ואחר כך זמן – we first say the bracha on the day, and then Shehecheyanu).
At this point, we return to the Mishna (Sukkah 5:7-8) which informs us that in addition to the previously mentioned rule about the Shalosh Regalim, when a Chag immediately precedes or follows Shabbat, the members of all 24 groups share equally in the division of the לחם הפנים (often translated as the ‘showbread’, but which I will soon explain differently) – although it then explains that different arrangements were made concerning the לחם הפנים when a Chag and Shabbat were not proximate. The Mishna then proceeds to speak about the ‘Bilgah’ group of kohanim who, were penalized in a variety of ways. As the Gemara then explains, this group was often lax and arrived late to perform their duties. Beyond this, we are also informed about a woman called Miriam, the daughter of a member of the Bilgah group, who became an apostate, married a Greek officer, and who – during the days of Matityahu – scornfully ‘kicked her sandal on top of the altar’.
The daf – and our Massechet – then conclude by quoting the teaching of ‘woe to the wicked one and woe to their neighbour’ – meaning that unfortunately those who act improperly can be a bad influence towards those close to them, while conversely, ‘good for the righteous and good for their neighbour’ – meaning that those who act properly can be a good influence towards those close to them.
As mentioned, on first glance these different discussions don’t necessarily fit together, yet it is at this point that I want to return to the לחם הפנים because there are some (see for example Rav Hirsch on Bereishit 3:19) who suggest that there is an etymological connection between the word לחם (bread) and מלחמה (struggle). Moreover, it should be noted that the word פנים, which is translated above as ‘show’ and refers to that which is external, is the same word as ‘inside’ and that which is hidden.
On this basis, the phrase לחם הפנים can be creatively explained as referring to the inner battle that we each experience about the choices we have, the identities we carry, and the influences that surround us, and what we see throughout the last daf of Massechet Sukkah is that while there are some situations where equivalence is achievable (כל המשמרות שוין), there are many when a choice needs to be made about priorities (סוכה ואחר כך זמן). Having explained, this, we now return to the Bilgah group – because both in terms of their choice of putting other things ahead of their service (and arriving late to their service), and Miriam’s choice of putting other beliefs ahead of her Jewish beliefs (an becoming an apostate), what is clear is that they became an example of making the wrong choice – which is probably why they were penalized by permanently fixing their ‘ring’ in the Beit HaMikdash, to demonstrate the importance of consistency and the need to be absolutely committed in certain aspects of our lives.
And now we return to the end of the Massechet where we are taught ‘woe to the wicked one and woe to their neighbour’ and ‘good for the righteous and good for their neighbour’, because it is based on the result of our inner struggles – our מלחמה שבפנים – and the choices that we make, which will determine certain aspects of our life trajectory – which is most certainly an appropriate message for us all as we approach the Yamim Noraim!