By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz
What is it about this Yom Tov of Sukkos that causes us to be so joyous? What is it about the sukkah – to others, merely a shaky primitively constructed room – that affects us so profoundly? Why are we so attached to it, investing so much physical and emotional energy erecting and beautifying it?
Back when we were young and in school, bringing home sheets with questions and lessons pertaining to the chag, we were introduced to the age-old question of why Sukkos is celebrated in the autumn, rather than in the spring. The Bnei Yisroel were actually freed from Mitzrayim during the month of Nissan and set out for the Promised Land. It was then that Hashem protected them with the sukkos in the midbar.
The Vilna Gaon, whose yahrtzeit falls out on this Yom Tov, shares a novel explanation (Biur HaGra, Shir Hashirim 1:4), which sheds light on the specific Torah commandment to be joyous on Sukkos
The mitzvah of sukkah was given “zeicher l’Ananei Hakavod,” to commemorate the Clouds that surrounded and sustained us in the midbar. The Ananim first arrived and began to protect us during the month of Nissan, when we left Mitzrayim. However, when the Jewish people sinned by creating the Eigel during Tammuz, they were punished, and the Clouds, representing Hashem and His protection, departed.
It was only after Moshe Rabbeinu succeeded with his tefillos and that sin was forgiven on Yom Kippur that Hakadosh Boruch Hu chose to return His Presence to Klal Yisroel. It was then, mimochoras Yom Hakippurim, that the collection of material began. Within a few days, everything needed to construct the Mishkan had been gathered and the Jewish people commenced its construction on the 15th day of Tishrei. This led to the return of the Ananim. That is the reason, the Gaon says, why we celebrate Sukkos on the 15th of Tishrei, for it was on this day that the Jews in the desert began to build the home of the Shechinah.
With this in mind, the collection of two-by-fours and plexi-glass windows for our sukkos has great significance. It commemorates the Mishkan, the return of the Ananim, which Hashem utilized to protect the Bnei Yisroel in the midbar as He led them to their destiny in the land of their fathers.
In its embrace, we feel the forgiveness offered to us for the sin that will be remembered for eternity, the Eigel Hazohov.
The Kadmonim teach (for example, Ramchal, Derech Hashem, 4:7) that Yomim Tovim are not mere memorials to nissim, but rather the time of year when the koach of the original neis is available and accessible. This is the explanation of the bracha we recite: “She’asah nissim la’avoseinu bayomim haheim bazeman hazeh.” Today, we still have the ability to tap into the energy of the original neis on the Yom Tov.
No mere monument to the ideals of forgiveness and a reunion with Hashem, the sukkah is a living reenactment of that experience in the midbar. We sinned and begged for mechilah. The Divine response of “Solachti kidvarecha“ ushered in a new era of closeness, the Mishkan and Ananim, once again. We sat then, and we sit now, beTzila Dimeheimenusa, in the Shade of Hashem.
All is well again. There is ritzui, Divine favor, flowing in our direction once more.
Sukkah is unique among Torah commandments. If we are prevented from fulfilling it, even due to circumstances beyond our control, it is a negative sign. Chazal famously say in Maseches Sukkah that it is like a servant who serves his master a drink and has it thrust back at him.
Rav Dovid Cohen, rosh yeshiva of Yeshivas Chevron, explains that it is because sukkah means that we’re back home, in His arms – yachbienu betzeil Yado. Thus, if He sends rain that keeps us indoors, it means that we didn’t merit that return. There is no simcha like that of the first night of Sukkos, when we gaze through stalks or slats and see the shining stars. We then appreciate this gift being offered to a people compared to stars.
Another interesting feature of this mitzvah is the unique minhag to decorate the sukkah and visually enhance it. The Vilna Gaon comments (Shir Hashirim 3:11) that the posuk of “Uveyom simchas Libo” refers to the date the Mishkan was erected, for Hashem was as happy on that day, kevayachol, as He was on the day that heaven and earth were created.
Thus, the complete posuk reads: “Tzenah ure’enah benos tzion bemelech Shlomo ba’atarah she’itrah lo imo beyom chasunaso uveyom simchas Libo.”
Perhaps we can suggest that the decorations, the kishutin, are a remembrance of the atarah she’itrah lo imo, on that day of simcha, the day of the construction of the Mishkan.
Further referencing those words, the Mishnah at the end of Maseches Taanis applies the words “yom simchas Libo” to the day that the Bais Hamikdash will be built, bemeheirah beyomeinu. Hashem’s Heart will rejoice, kevayachol, on that day, just as it did back when His Presence came to rest among us with the Mishkan.
The Vilna Gaon (Aderes Eliyahu, Parshas Balak) writes that the four Yomim Tovim – Pesach, Acharon Shel Pesach, Shavuos and Sukkos – correspond to four different geulos: Yetzias Mitzrayim, Krias Yam Suf, Matan Torah and binyan Bais Habechirah. Again, we are shown the connection between Sukkos, the Yom Tov of hashra’as haShechinah in the Mishkan, and the ultimate earthly abode for His Presence, the Bais Hamikdash.
In fact, the Gaon in Chavakuk (3:2) states that Sukkos, when the Mishkan was built, is also the time that the Bais Hamikdash was constructed. Sukkos is intertwined with the Mishkan and the Mikdash and the resting of the Shechinah amongst Klal Yisroel.
It stands to reason that the construction of the third and final Bais Hamikdash, for which we wait so desperately, is also connected to Sukkos. In fact, the Gaon (Even Shlomo 11:1) writes exactly that. He says that on Sukkos, we will merit the binyan Bais Hamikdash.
We have been through so much. We have suffered and been pillaged. We have run from place to place and have been given no rest since the Bais Hamikdash was destroyed. We have pined and prayed and waited for the third Bais Hamikdash.
We have experienced a period of return, coming closer to Hashem through Rosh Hashanah, the Aseres Yemei Teshuvah and Yom Kippur, again and again invoking the Yud Gimmel Middos of rachamim. Just as they were effective following the Eigel, we hope that they were effective now. We trust that our sins were forgiven and we are back in Hashem’s total embrace.
So we take hammer and nails in hand, and humbly set out to put up our sukkah, with a prayer in our hearts that Hashem see fit to rest His Presence on it so that we will merit sitting beTzila Dimehemnusa. We decorate it ke’atarah she’itrah lo imo, because we hope that our little edifice represents the simchas Libo of Hakadosh Boruch Hu.
Our songs of joy reach the heavens as we sit in the sukkah that first night, if we merit for it not to rain and we are fortunate enough to eat the kezayis and fulfill the mitzvah de’Oraysa. Tears of happiness roll down our cheeks as we welcome our family, guests, and the Ushpizin. We beg, plead, and sing joyously, announcing our yearning for a full return. Harachaman hu yokim lanu es sukkas Dovid hanofales.
Bring us back Dovid Hamelech. Bring us back the Bais Hamikdash. Bring us back to Yerushalayim, keyom simchoso veyom simchas Libo.
Lift up the boards of Dovid’s sukkah, which has fallen…
Take your children or grandchildren in the car and go on a Chol Hamoed trip, anywhere, in any direction. You will observe the same reaction: “Look, a sukkah!” Wherever Yidden travel during the next week, their eyes will be wide open, looking across vistas and up at towering apartment buildings in the hope of seeing the familiar structure.
Architecturally, it’s nothing wondrous, and it doesn’t do much for the aesthetics of a landscape, but, inevitably, seeing a sukkah in an unexpected place generates joy and excitement. Seeing the sukkah does something to us.
So wherever we go, when we catch a glimpse of a sukkah, any sukkah, anywhere, our spirits soar, because we know that we are witnessing proof that even now, in a dark, cold world, the Shechinah is with us.
We trust that soon, His Sukkah will rise high above the hills of Yerushalayim – vayehi beShalem Sukko (Tehillim, 76) – and the simcha will never end.