In one of his famous lectures the great sage of the Talmud, Rabbi Chanina ben Pappa, told his huge audience the following story that highlights the difference between Israel and other nations:

Some time in the future G‑d will sit in judgment over the world. He will put a Torah Scroll in front of Him and will announce: “All those who engaged in the study of this, My book, may come and receive their proper reward.” Immediately all the nations of the earth will send their heavenly representatives to claim their share. They will all crowd about the heavenly throne and clamor for His divine attention. Yet G‑d will ask them to stand back and to appear before him individually, so that each one may argue his case and be rewarded accordingly.

First to place his claim before the Almighty is the representative of the once mighty Roman nation. It had ruled the world for many centuries and believed that it deserved preference over other nations.

“What are your merits?” G‑d asks, “Why, Heavenly Master, You are surely aware of our glorious contribution to the culture and civilization of Your world. We constructed public markets, baths, and places of enjoyment and business. We amassed gold and silver, as no other nation before and after us. And for whose sake did we do all this? Only for the express purpose of permitting Your people Israel to study Torah free of care and worry. We certainly deserve the utmost consideration and credit.”

“Fool,” is the Divine reply to the representative of mighty Rome, “how dare you present such a claim to the rewards of Torah! Did you not build public markets for your own purposes, and public baths and theaters for your own joy and entertainment? Whom did your so-called civilization serve but yourselves? You claim you amassed gold and silver. Whose is all the gold and silver of the world but Mine? You should know better than to demand a share of the rewards of Torah.”

Abashed over this heavenly rebuke the representative of the Roman nation withdraws. And up comes his great rival for universal fame, ancient Persia. As before, the Divine question is put: “What are your merits?” “Why, they are aplenty, O G‑d. It is really we who brought the blessings of human ingenuity into Your world. We built bridges, constructed mighty cities, and taught other nations how to live in beauty and comfort. We conquered continents and warred against the mightiest rulers on earth, all that Your people, Israel, may sit in peace and study Torah.”

“Who is the G‑d of wars, but I,” thunders the heavenly voice in reply to the proud claim of Persia. “You constructed bridges, true. But you did it only for the purpose of collecting tolls from the wayfarers. Yes, you created cities, but only to levy taxes from their inhabitants. All the blessings of your culture were but instruments in your selfish interests. You certainly have no claim to the rewards of Torah.”

Humiliated by the Divine verdict, the representative of Persia steps back into the ranks of the other nations. And thus, one by one, the representatives of the people who thrived throughout the centuries of history come forward to demand rewards, claiming that all their achievements were for the good of the Jewish people, to allow them to study Torah. But, as in the case of ancient Rome and Persia, their claims and confidence vanish under the close heavenly scrutiny. And one by one they have to withdraw with empty hands.

The heroic nations of world history are too proud and too greedy to surrender so easily without another attempt. For once, the nations join forces, take counsel and return to the Almighty. One steps forward to act as spokesman for the rest of them. “O G‑d, who are we to doubt Your just judgment? If we do not deserve our share for active merits, You should consider that You never forced the Torah on us, as you did on Israel. When the Children of Israel stood before Mount Sinai you threatened to bury them beneath it, unless they accepted the Torah. We, too, would have said: ‘We shall do and we shall obey,’ had you forced the Torah upon us in a similar way.”

God counters this sly claim of the nations, saying: “Long before Israel was given the Torah, all nations had become subject to the Seven Laws revealed to Noah. They were only seven, as compared to the six hundred and thirteen that Israel volunteered to observe. And what did you make of the seven?”

But the mighty nations of the earth, led by the Greeks, Romans and Persians, are undaunted. “Why, O G‑d, should you be more strict with us than with the Children of Israel? Consider how the six hundred and thirteen commands fared with them?”

“I Myself am witness that Israel fulfilled all the commands of the Torah,” says the Almighty to the spokesman of the nations.

But the Romans are good lawyers. They study the requirements set by the Torah, and after a few minutes of careful research they counter: “How, O G‑d, may we accept your testimony as impartial and valid? Your own Torah prevents relatives from being witnesses. How then can you testify for Israel whom you call ‘My son, My firstborn’?”

Says G‑d: “Then let heaven be witness that my people fulfilled every minute demand of the Torah.”

The Romans are prepared to counter this suggestion, too. They open the Book of Jeremiah and read: “If My covenant be not with you day and night, I would not appoint the ordinances of heaven and earth.’ Heaven and earth owe their existence to the Jews’ observance of the Torah. Hence heaven and earth cannot be impartial witnesses on behalf of the Jewish people.”

“Since you want it, you yourselves will have to stand testimony that my people have observed the Torah in its entirety,” says the Almighty. At the Divine command King Nimrod appears to testify that Abraham refused to serve his idols. Lavan comes to assert than Jacob never touched anything that was not his by right. Potiphar’s wife appears to confirm that Joseph withstood all her temptations to immoral conduct. Nebuchadnezzar testifies that Chananiah, Mishael and Azariah preferred death to bowing before an idol. And like these four, many other famous personages of history step forward for the past, to be witnesses on behalf of Israel. They confirm that the Jews died heroically for the glory of G‑d’s holy name, choosing death and torture over violating a single law of the Torah. Among the witnesses were Roman, Greeks, Syrians and Persians; Huns, Spaniards and Moors; Germans, Poles and British. They all had their Jewish martyrs.

The nations have to concede the injustice of their claims to the rewards of Torah. But they do not yet surrender. They choose the one way which, they know from the past, has always had its special appeal to the Almighty; “Give us just another chance, another opportunity to earn the rewards of Torah,” they beg.

“Silly humans,” comes the Divine retort. “He who prepares for Shabbat, has something to feast on. Nevertheless, you shall not appeal in vain to My mercy. Here is one small mitzvah, one out of six hundred and thirteen. Its name is “Sukkah”. Go and fulfill it.”

Hardly have the nations heard this heavenly verdict than they hurry away to build their sukkot with all the luxuries and splendor to which they are accustomed by centuries of celebrations and pompous rites. But G‑d then sends out the blazing sun. The nations immediately find the discomfort too much for them to bear. They leave their sukkot and rush into their shady houses.

“Thus,” concluded Rabbi Chanina ben Pappa, “G‑d will prove to the world that of all nations only Israel deserves the rewards of Torah.”