Succot: To enjoy being in God’s shadow

What are these succot, these booths in which our forefathers sat in the desert? Two thousand years ago, the sages of the Mishna were divided about this issue.

Painting by Meira Raanan (photo credit: MEIRA RAANAN)
Painting by Meira Raanan
(photo credit: MEIRA RAANAN)
The holiday of Succot is an especially happy one. After the transcendent and fearsome feelings of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, it feels great to be released into nature, to go out to the succa with the entire family to celebrate the holiday about which the Torah says, “Be wholly happy.” But why? What is the purpose of celebrating this holiday? The Torah states: “ order that your [ensuing] generations should know that I had the Children of Israel live in booths when I took them out of the land of Egypt” (Leviticus 23:43).
What are these succot, these booths in which our forefathers sat in the desert? Two thousand years ago, the sages of the Mishna were divided about this issue.
Rabbi Akiva thought that these were regular booths that the people built in the desert. Rabbi Eliezer claimed that “succot” referred to the Clouds of Glory that God brought to protect the people from mountains, obstacles, wild animals and other potential harm along the way.
These explanations are hard to understand. If these were real succot, what would be the reason to remember them every year? What was so special about them? And even if we are talking about the Clouds of Glory that came miraculously, why do we celebrate a special holiday for this miracle in particular? The Torah tells us about many other miracles that our forefathers merited in the desert – for example, the miracle of the manna, the heavenly food that they ate in the desert; the miracle of Miriam’s well, which provided them with drinking water throughout their journey. In what way were the succot so unique that we celebrate a special holiday to remember them?
Let us ask one more question. There is a halacha (Jewish law) regarding the mitzva of succa that is unlike any other commandment: A person for whom eating or sleeping in the succa would cause physical distress is exempt from being in a succa. For example, someone who lives in a very cold place or whose succa is full of mosquitoes may eat and sleep in his home as usual. Why? A person for whom giving charity or keeping Shabbat or eating matza on Passover causes distress would not even imagine being exempt from these mitzvot. What is so special about the mitzva of being in the succa? To understand this, let us look at the two opinions we mentioned above – actual booths or Clouds of Glory – and see that they are two sides of the same coin.
When the people of Israel left Egypt, God placed them under His wings and they merited life accompanied by His special kindness. Their relationship with the Creator was simple: At any time, they could approach Moses, who had “free access” to talk to God and look into their doubts. Simultaneously, God gave them mitzvot and directions to raise their spiritual level, which reached its peak when they received the Torah on Mount Sinai. They lived in God’s shadow at every moment.
Along with this lofty spiritual sense came an amazing physical reality as well. An entire nation of millions of people (600,000 men between the ages of 20 and 60, plus women and children) walked through the desert. Where did they get food? Where did they get water, clothes, shelter? They merited heavenly miracles in these spheres as well: Food fell from the sky, water came up from the well, the clothing never wore out, and the succot were built.
In memory of this wonderful wholeness, of the journey through the desert under the wings of God Who accompanied us with extraordinary material abundance, we celebrate the festival of Succot. The holiday includes two sides of the same coin: We are commanded to go out into nature and try to reexperience the feeling of dependence on God and being sheltered in His shadow as were the Children of Israel in the desert, but all this under the condition that there is no physical distress.
We try to recreate the spiritual experience our forefathers had in the desert: perfect dependence on God that comes with physical comforts even in a barren desert. This is why we have that unique halacha that states that if a person feels distress sitting in his succa, he is exempt from this mitzva.
Now we can better sense and understand that the holiday of Succot is not just a joyful holiday and a commemoration of miracles that occurred in the desert. It is a lofty, spiritual experience that comes at the perfect time: after Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, when we felt the judgment and mercy of the Creator and our sins were atoned for. Then we merit the Divine light that leads us to live in a different atmosphere, in the ambience of a succa which God shields, with the sense of the Clouds of Glory enveloping us and walking alongside us in every step of life, and in the great joy over being privileged to live in this great light, the light of the Creator which accompanies our lives in great love.

Hag Sameah!

The writer is the rabbi of the Western Wall and Holy Sites.