The sukkah has an unusual place in Jewish thought. On the one hand, it is an unrivaled holy space, the mandated nature of which can only be compared to the Beit HaMikdash. On the other hand, several sources understand it to be a substitute for the punishment of exile. Of course, we need not resolve these ideas and can just say they represent rival approaches to this popular commandment. But looking at it in its larger context will show that not only are these ideas not contradictory, but they can even bolster one another:
Sukkot’s unique and obviously crafted position after the High Holidays gives it an atmosphere of bliss. In ancient times, when it also marked the end of the agricultural year, this spiritual bliss was reinforced by a sense of completion as well. Like Shabbat – but even more so – the work was behind, and one was free to enjoy the fruits of one’s labors. But even today, Sukkot is a holiday that brings a unique inner peace – a peace that would seem to resemble the messianic era, not coincidentally one of its themes. And the quality that most epitomizes that era is harmony between Jew and gentile – not a magical disappearance of anti-Semitism or a complete victory of tolerance-education, but rather a universal acceptance of God’s moral and spiritual order; an order that is best advanced by helping the Jewish people serve God and further educate mankind.
But how do we get there? Netziv on Devarim 29:3 is among several Jewish thinkers that propose that exile was not only a punishment for the Jewish people, but also a necessary condition for human redemption. He points out that if the Jews were to have stayed in their land, their influence on the rest of the world would have been severely limited.
Of course, no one can deny that the harsh conditions of exile have exerted a great toll on the Jewish people. But this is only the case when the Jews live outside of the sukkah – when they do not reach the spiritual heights that come from properly going through the High Holidays and subsequently living in God’s space. As we find in Chullin 8b, when something is busy exuding, it cannot simultaneously absorb. Along those lines, the Jews can only absorb the bitterness of the exile, when they are not exuding their own Godly spirituality. And the exuding of spirituality is precisely what is supposed to happen on Sukkot.
At Sukkot, the nature of exile itself is different : At that time we exit the artificial human walls we build to protect ourselves and meld into the larger reality of God and His creation – knowing that we have the spiritual strength to expose ourselves to all that it entails, while giving ourselves a taste of the messianic consciousness that will one day allow us to ‘live in the sukkah’ throughout the year..
And that consciousness is the consciousness of the Beit HaMikdash. For though the geography of Israel may be absent, the sukkah’s spiritual space is essential identical with that of the Temple – which King Shlomo dedicated as a source of spiritual inspiration for all of the nations. Hence the sukkah embodies the function of the Beit HaMikdash until the latter can be rebuilt, to fulfill that function itself. Until that time comes, however, all we have is the sukkah.
Basing himself on the Midrash and on the Zohar, Rav Kook writes that the ultimate song of Israel is when the song of self, the song of the nation, the song of man and the song of the world all merge into one at all times (Orot haKodesh, vol II, pp. 444-45). Rav Kook identifies this as the Song of Songs written by Shlomo. I would add to this that he wrote it as an embodiment of the spirit with which he imbued the Beit HaMikdash. And it is this song that we taste at Sukkot, when all Jews metaphorically join together in one single dwelling – a dwelling that transforms the world around it.