We have begun to discuss the symbolism and significance of the Sukkah. Some highlights:
The Sukkah commemorates the special clouds we were protected by in the desert.
We lost these clouds with the sin of the Golden Calf but they were restored as a result of our repentance and building of the Mishkan.
Construction of the Mishkan began on 15 Tishrei- meaning that Sukkot begins on the same day those clouds returned.
Another reason we celebrate Sukkot now and not in the spring is so that it is recognizable that we are doing a mitzvah and not just relaxing.
And we are still wondering: what is the deeper connection between the ideas of 1.the return of the clouds; 2. showing that we are sitting in a Sukkah as a mitzvah; and 3. the holiday of Sukkot?
There is a word, a deep idea, that is commonly discussed yet not always understood: Shechina. You probably remember that the Shechina is known as “God’s Presence,” and that this refers to a stronger feeling of connection to God that He allows in specific circumstances. Interestingly, Hashem shows us this stronger connection by resting a cloud in a given place.
When we have reached this level by bringing a cloud, often over the Aron (holy container for the two Tablets) as a physical ‘symbol’. Therefore, being that the Sukkah represents the Clouds of Honor that came back when we built the Mishkan, we will understand the importance of these clouds if we can find something else that shares these characteristics. For that, we look to the Menorah of the Mishkan…
Does Hashem really need the light of the Menorah?! Did He not lead the Jewish People in the desert for 40 years with the Pillar of Fire and the Clouds of Honor? Rather, the Menorah must be… a testimony. What is that testimony? That just like the western lamp of the Menorah would (miraculously) always remain lit, so too will the Jewish People always remain.
– Gemara Shabbat 22b
The Menorah, by the way, means even more than its role in the Mishkan. The Ramban (explaining a Midrash) says that Aharon, after not having a role in bringing sacrifices in the inauguration of the Mishkan, was comforted by the privilege of lighting the Menorah– which was extended through the generations to the time of the Chanukah miracle and the mitzvah the Rabbis of that time to light the menorah for future generations.
-So the Menorah was a symbol of the survival of our nation, as well as of the Chanukah story hundreds of years later. How does this relate to our lesson?
The Roman historian Josephus wrote a lot about the Jews of his time, including about the events surrounding the Chanukah story and the Jews’ battle with the Greeks. He writes extensively about the Jews’ service in the Beit HaMikdash in the time leading up to the war, and is amazed at how the Kohanim would run back and forth while dealing with heavy animals and technical details of sacrifices. Keep this account in mind while we look at the following:
The reason Hashem allowed the Greeks to terrorize the Jews at the time was because the Jews had become weak in their service of God. Only when they acted with mesirut nefesh (special effort) to fight the Mityavnim (Hellenists) did they merit the miracle of the war and the Menorah.
– Bayit Chadash (halachah commentator) [very loose translation]
-What’s the story here? Were the Jews at that time work hard spiritually or not? The answer seems to be: true, the kohanim and probably all of the Jews did put effort into their religious duties- but they were still weak in their hearts, in their commitment– in their relationship with God. When the Menorah stayed lit for eight days then, it was Hashem showing us that He was with us- because we were with him. The same Menorah that is a testimony to the eternity of our nation is a sign of our relationship with God. Now, let’s try to take this to the next level, with a second teaching about the Menorah.
Does Hashem need the light of the Menorah?! Rather, it is comparable to a blind man and a seeing man who walk together on the road. When they arrive at the house, the seeing man tells the blind man, “Please light a lamp for me.”
Says, the blind man: “But why? In your goodness you have led me until this point- and now I should light a lamp for you?!”
“It’s true, I don’t need your lamp”, says the seeing man. “But I want you to light a lamp for me the same way I helped you, so that others should see you helping me!”- Midrash
-Amazing. The Midrash is saying exactly what we have been saying- that the Menorah is a symbol of our relationship with Hashem; He wants us not to just fulfill his commandments mechanically- but rather within the context of a relationship with Him…
Here’s another similarity between the two holidays we are discussing. As we have mentioned, we sit in the Sukkah in a way that makes it clear it is for a mitzvah. There is one other holiday that requires the same clarity in its mitzvah: Chanukah. The Chanukah menorah should be lit at a time that there are people outside to see it lit; it needs to be separated from the Shabbat candles so that it is recognizable as a different lamp; even its own candles should be distanced from each other so that it is clear how many lights there are that night. And so we can ask the same question about Chanukah that we asked about Sukkot last week: why is that? What about Chanukah’s essence demands this clarity? And we can now answer this question about both holidays with an idea that we are already developing: each of these holidays stresses our relationship with Hashem. Sukkot, of course, is about the Clouds and the Mishkan and the Shechina. In fact, the language of the actual mitzvah to build the Mishkan shows this more than anything…
And you shall build for Me a Temple and I will dwell among you.
It doesn’t say “dwell in it (the Temple)”, but rather “among you”, meaning inside each member of the Jewish People.
And then we come to Chanukah: remember the idea that the Jews were not serving God with the right emotions, and this led to the Greek oppression? And that they merited their miracle because of their re-dedication to God with mesirut nefesh? Well, this is the same idea exactly: we need to appreciate our relationship with God- and this is recognized by the menorah of today- and of the Mishkan! And the Mishkan’s menorah was also representative our nation’s survival, and of the Shechina’s presence- just like the Sukkah.
So, each of these holidays show us that we cannot merely serve Hashem mechanically. Rather, it must be with the understanding that we are His sons and daughters:
Your are children to Hashem your God
And we become aware, through this idea, how we have been elevated above the other nations of the world, in our mission to bring light- to light God’s lamp, so to speak- for the whole world.
And now other concepts fit into place like pieces in a puzzle:
The seven branches of the menorah correspond to the 70 nations of the world- the western lamp that never burned out corresponds to the Jewish People.
– Or Hachaim.
The 70 sheep brought in total as sacrifices over the Sukkot holiday correspond to the 70 nations of the world (they are an atonement for all of these nations).
The end of Sukkot, the Shemini Atzeret holiday, is comparable to a king who makes a party for all of his subjects for one week. When it ends, the king calls his son over and says, “Your leaving is difficult for me; I want you to stay one more day with me.” So too is the Shemini Atzeret; all of the nations of the world have the sacrifices brought on their behalf- and then, after the Jews are about to leave Jerusalem at the holiday’s end, God tells them to stay alone with Him for one more day…
– Gemara Sukkah
Again, we realize we have a special connection to God, and that is what we show. And this is why this holiday is the one about which the Torah specifically writes:
And you shall be happy in your holiday…
May we connect with God and feel true happiness.
Have a great Shabbat and holiday!
Elli Schwarcz is an alumnus of the Toras Moshe, Ner Israel, and Carteret Yeshivos, and has been involved in Jewish outreach for almost 15 years. He is a Hebrew School and English Language Arts teacher, and has a Master’s Degree in Counseling from Johns Hopkins University. Of all his pursuits, Elli most enjoys teaching high-level Jewish thought and Talmud to teenage boys, exposing them to the beauty and wisdom of their heritage while highlighting their own ability to engage in advanced Torah learning. Elli lives in Lakewood, New Jersey, with his wife and children.