The Torah proclaims the 15th day of Tishrei the beginning of the seven-day festival of Sukkot and requires that during that time we dwell in booths. Typically, the Torah gives no reason for its commandments and we are left to fathom them for ourselves. But the mitzvah of sukkah has a stated reason: “That your generations may know that I made the children of Israel dwell in booths when I brought them out of the land of Egypt.”
If the holiday of Sukkot commemorates the exodus from Egypt, which took place in the first month of Nisan, why are we told to dwell in booths in the seventh month of Tishrei? The answer may lie in mystery the Torah invests in the number seven. On the seventh day of each week we dedicate time, that precious and irretrievable asset, to God. And in return God shelters us in His cloud, where the pressures of time are suspended for the day.
Give and take is the essence of every relationship, including that of God and man. But when we came out of Egypt, we did not understand that. The wealth we accumulated from the Egyptians on the way out was invested in the golden calf. And so God summoned back His cloud of protection and left us to the pressures of our own possessions. It was only in the seventh month of Tishrei, when Moses returned from the mountain of God with the gift of amnesty, that we finally agreed to donate our cherished possessions to the building of God’s house rather than our own.
Between the eleventh and the fifteenth days of Tishrei, the Jews busied themselves with the building of the Mishkan, God’s residence. When the Mishkan was completed on the eve of the fifteenth day of Tishrei, God and man renounced their respective permanent residences. God descended from his lofty residence and resided in the House we built for Him. And we leave behind the house we built ourselves and reside in the sukkah He builds for us.
What were the desert sukkot made of? Some maintain they were God’s clouds that protected us from the elements as we trudged through the desert. Others say they were real booths we built ourselves. The Netziv suggests that both opinions are right. According to him, when the Jews encamped, they built their own sukkot. And when they were on the move, God protected them with His Cloud of Glory. Indeed the very construction of the sukkah seems to incorporate both opinions. The roof must be made of natural vegetation, unprocessed and unused by man, and like all Godly things it must be of a substance that cannot be contaminated.
Without the roof there is no sukkah. But without the walls there is no roof. In fact, the walls must be erected first or else the sukkah is disqualified. Just as the Shabbat is a joint venture in time between God and man, so too the sukkah is a joint venture in space between God and man. This perhaps explains why so many of the fundamental laws of eruvin (tzurat hapetach, lavud, gud asik, korah and lechi), are derived from the laws of Sukkot. When we are on the move in life, exiled from place to place, we turn to God, our Partner, for the protection of His cloud. When we are given the luxury of settling down, God turns to us, His partner, for the protection of our walls. Perhaps that is why the Ushpizin, the guests Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Aaron, Joseph and David, who according to the Kabbalah reside with us in our sukkot, feel so at home there – for they knew a nomadic existence in which they shared their fragile homes with God and God with them.