After going through Elul, Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, we have arrived at the holiday of Sukkot. If we spend some time examining the mitzvah of dwelling in a Sukkah, we will see that this time of year and the holidays it contains are part of a process in which our relationship with God is redefined.
We can start with some basic questions about the mitzvah:
- What does this commandment symbolize?
2. Why do we perform this mitzvah- and observe this holiday- at this time of year?
The mitzvah of dwelling in a Sukkah for seven days is a commemoration of how Hashem surrounded the Jews with Clouds of Honor (Ananei HaKavod) in the desert after they left Egypt… But if so, why do we celebrate Sukkot now, during the fall, instead of –like Pesach- the spring, the time of year when we left Egypt? This is because many people go out in huts during the spring (as a way to relax in the nice weather while shading themselves from the sun), and if we were commanded to go out in a Sukkah then, it would not be recognizable that we were doing so for a mitzvah.
– Tur (Halacha) [loose translation]
The Tur is teaching us that we were commanded to observe Sukkot in the ‘wrong’ time of the year so that our deed would be recognized as following a Mitzvah and not just as a way to relax. We’ll get back to this point…
The legendary Gaon of Vilna (Rav Eliyahu Kramer; 1720-1797) gives another, very interesting answer to the question, and we will explain it slowly here:
About 40 days after the Jewish People had received the Torah at Har Sinai, they made a terrible mistake- the Sin of the Golden Calf. Hashem warned that He would wipe out the entire nation and start again from Moshe Rabenu, but had mercy after Moshe’s prayers on their behalf. Instead, Hashem did not punish those who had not been directly involved in this idol worship, and Moshe remained on Har Sinai a second time, for an additional 40 days- at which time he was given the Second Tablets (Luchot Shniyot), replacing the original version, which he had broken when the Jews sinned.
The Hebrew date of Moshe’s return with the new tablets, completing Hashem’s forgiveness of the nation: the tenth of Tishrei– a day later to be known as… Yom Kippur. Now, because the Jews had fallen and still needed to restore the spiritual level they had previously held, Hashem gave a special mitzvah to the people through Moshe: build a ‘Mishkan’- a portable Beit HaMikdash to be used in the desert in the service of God. (In fact, the structure would be much more than a physical place in which sacrifices could be brought; it would also be the central point of the entire encampment- and a place in which God would make His Presence known to the Jews and the whole world. The Shechina, as we have discussed in Torah Themes (Terumah- Tetzaveh 2012) was a noticeable feeling of connection to Hashem, often physically symbolized by a cloud- and the Aron, holding the tablets and in the holiest part of the Mishkan, would be the primary focus of this connection.)
Now, one consequence of the Jews’ sin was the loss of the Clouds of Honor we mentioned earlier; they no longer merited this special protection. Yet when they built the Mishkan, those Clouds returned- after collecting money and materials for the project immediately after they were given this mitzvah, they began the actual building on the fifteenth of Tishrei– a day that would later be known as… Sukkot. In other words, says the Gaon of Vilna, our holiday of Sukkot is timed exactly on the day the clouds were restored; we celebrate the clouds now because it is exactly now that they were restored through our building of the Mishkan!
Amazing. Not only does the Gaon’s explanation tell us that the timing of our mitzvah fits exactly with the restoration of the clouds through the Mishkan, but it also seems to say that our mitzvah reflects the same cause and effect that occurred with the Mishkan and the clouds; just as the clouds returned because of the action we took in building a place for the Shechina, so too does building one’s one Sukkah come together with a stronger awareness of our connection with God.
Let’s go back to the two answers given to the holy Tur’s question of why Sukkot is celebrated in the fall: 1. So that it is clear that we are performing a mitzvah; 2. Because the construction of the Mishkan brought the Clouds of Honor back at this time. Let’s ask a different type of question now- try to follow the structure of this thinking here: Is there something deeper about Sukkot that these concepts come from? In other words: is the timing of the holiday only practically ‘forced’ to be now because of these two considerations? Or do the answers we have seen give us an idea about the very definition of the holiday itself?
What we are getting at here is a simple but deep point, the type of logical connection we have discussed in the past: there are no coincidences in the Torah.*
–Similarly, there should be a reason why this holiday is designed in a way which stresses and emphasizes that our sitting in the Sukkah is really for a mitzvah. And there must be something about the holiday that connects with the idea of bringing the Shechina and a stronger awareness of Hashem into our lives.
Let’s try to answer this question and develop our theme over the coming days. In the meantime, this will be a nice topic of conversation for the Sukkah; we can all see what we come up with until next time…
*Moshe Rabbeinu, for example, had a speech impediment. Hashem caused a miracle, allowing his communication with the nation at Har Sinai to be perfect and extremely loud. – But there must be a reason why Hashem wanted to give the Torah through a person with such a problem; although we do not know Hashem’s deepest reasons, we can validly ask if there is something for us to learn from that particular story- Hashem runs the world and could have arranged history differently so that Moshe never acquired his speech impediment when he was a baby; surely, then, there was a reason why things unfolded as they did. Commentators discuss this issue.
Have a great Shabbat and Sukkot!
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.