The Torah emphasizes that Sukkot is a joyous holiday. Indeed, it commands us not once, but twice, to be joyful on Sukkot: “Rejoice in your festival…and be totally joyous–ושמחת בחגך…והיית אך שמח” and “Rejoice before the Lord, your G-d, for seven days– ושמחתם לפני ה’ אלוקיכם שבעת ימים” (Devarim 16:14-15 & Vayikra 23:40). Let us try to put our finger on the source of this joy and explore together some classical insights into the festival of Sukkot and the mitzvah of dwelling in the sukkah.
The Talmud (Sukkah 11b) records an interesting difference of opinion among our great Sages about what exactly the Torah means when it tells us why we are to dwell in the sukkah on Sukkot: For you should know throughout the generations that I placed the Jews in sukkot when I took them out of Egypt (Vayikra 23:43). Rabbi Eliezer understood that the sukkot mentioned in the pasuk refer to the Clouds of Glory that G-d sent to envelop and protect the Jews during their years in the desert. Rabbi Akiva, however, understood this literally as a reference to actual sukkot – similar to the temporary “huts” we use today. Although the accepted opinion is that of Rabbi Eliezer, the Pri Megadim writes that one should have the interpretations of both Sages in mind while fulfilling the mitzah of sukkah.
Now, we may find it a bit difficult to fully appreciate the opinion of Rabbi Akiva because the Torah itself tells us that G-d enveloped the Jews with miraculous Clouds of Glory. Why does Rabbi Akiva insist on a literal understanding?
The Chatam Sofer (דרשות נ”ג) clears up the mystery by explaining that among the Jewish people were lepers and other ritually impure individuals who were disqualified from dwelling in the confines of the camp. They were the ones who dwelt in actual sukkot outside of the Clouds of Glory. Thus, the Chatam Sofer explains, the two opinions of our Sages can be reconciled the righteous and pure merited the Clouds of Glory, while the lepers and other impure individuals had to suffice with actual sukkot made for them by G-d.
If we think about it, this awareness can enhance our own fulfillment of the mitzvah of sukkah. Those of us who were worthy on Yom Kippur to be cleansed and inscribed in the Book of the Righteous can enjoy the sukkah as it is described in the Zohar: to be the shade of emunah (faith and trust in G-d), similar to the Clouds of Glory. But those who were less fortunate can also find joy and consolation in the sukkah. They can feel that leaving their comfortable houses and entering the sukkah is a kind of exile which will bring them the atonement that they did not merit on Yom Kippur. This is hinted at in the plural name of the festival – Sukkot – since the sukkah serves two different functions.
The Zohar notes that this temporary dwelling place which requires two walls and a bit of a third symbolizes an arm that is hugging (וימינו תחבקני). It is, symbolically, the “Arm” of G-d – the “Arm” that continues to hug us in our exile. Whether we as individuals are in symbolic exile in the sukkah or whether we as a nation are in exile and the Diaspora, we still can bring G-d’s Glory into our lives. Indeed, G-d treasures our ability to remain joyous as we retain a permanent relationship with Him despite the constantly changing conditions and lack of permanence of Jewish life in Exile. G-d loves us as we project to ourselves and others that the Jews’ happiness is not due to wealth or material luxury. Rather, it is our ability to sit in the sukkah together with our ancestors and connect to a pleasure in life that luxury cannot offer: the pleasure of being in G-d’s shade and following Him throughout difficult times. It is no coincidence that in the end of days, G-d will refute the gentiles’ claim of loyalty to G-d by testing them specifically with the mitzvah of sukkah. For only a Jew has the ability to remain close to G-d despite difficulty and exile.
The Jew appreciates that there is no greater pleasure than being close to G-d. As Rabbi Noach Weinberg zt”l explained, this pleasure is greater than the other four types of pleasures available to man, beginning with sensual pleasure – such as steak, luxury cars, good music. It is greater than the pleasure of love – such as love for a child or a spouse. (The sensual level of pleasure is the lowest on the list. One would not give up one unit of the pleasure of love for all of the sensual pleasures in the world such as giving up a spouse for a steak.) It is greater than the pleasure derived from a cause. (A cause is a higher level of pleasure than love. People are willing to do so much for a cause – sometimes even at the expense of their loved ones.) It is even greater than the pleasure of creativity – such as creating a family or a new concept.
Beyond all these worldly pleasures is the pleasure of having a relationship with G-d and recognizing and appreciating that He is the source of all we have and has always been our Savior and Protector. Rabbi Weinberg noted that it is difficult to tap into this pleasure while pursuing after the pleasures of the senses.
Under the leaves of the schach (sukkah roof) and the blue sky, the Jew can readily feel this pleasure of a relationship with his Creator. Out of his comfortable home, inside his humble sukkah abode, the Jew can tap into this unsurpassable pleasure which brings unlimited happiness. It is a relationship that even an exile of 2,000 years cannot diminish.
Inside the sukkah, we sense that we are in a different world. We are in a world where the pleasure of G-d’s presence is tangible and can be appreciated as more pleasurable then all worldly possessions. We project this joy during the time of plenty and harvestand thereby fortify ourselves for the upcoming journey through the long, cold winter ahead.
In the Land of Israel, the festival of Sukkot falls during the harvest. A successful harvest can easily swell the ego of the individual gathering in so much bounty. Thus, the Rashbam tells us, we leave our sturdy houses for a flimsy sukkah specifically at this time of year in order to humble ourselves (Vayikra 23:23). We must remember that there was a time when our nation dwelled in the desert in simple huts. And we must remember that it is not our strength that gave us our wealth, but rather the kindness of G-d. This awareness only strengthens our feeling of closeness to the One who provides for all of our needs, always.