In a moment that brought home how limitless the layers of meaning in our familiar observances are, it occurred to me as I looked ahead to Sukkot that this holiday celebrates gifts that Hashem bestowed on us during a period when we were being punished.
Due to the sin of the spies – their myopic report and our shortsighted acceptance of it – G-d sentenced the Jewish people to 40 years of wandering in the desert. Sadly, much of that generation would not live to make it into the Promised Land.
The makeshift booths we erect outside our homes on Sukkot represent the ananei hakavod, the clouds of glory which protected us throughout our long sojourn in the desert. In that terrain, one not known for its verdancy or comfortable climate, G-d took care of all our needs – food, water, clean clothing, safety from predators. Embodying the Shechina, a pillar of cloud by day and of fire by night led the way forward across the vast wilderness.
No small miracles these – and yet they were rendered not in a moment of triumph or spiritual climax, not upon the transformation of darkness to light, as in the case of Pesach, Chanukah, and Purim. On those other festivals, we celebrate our deliverance from harm: Our enemies threatened our lives and our future as a people; G-d in His mercy brought our troubles to a miraculous end; and so, forever after, we give thanks by marking the date with a joyous holiday.
Sukkot, on the other hand, trumpets not the happy end to a tale of woe, but our quotidian survival during an extended period of trial. Hashem in His anger forced us to take the very long way home, and yet, throughout that difficult journey, His holy presence surrounded us and kept us going.
Perhaps that’s why on this holiday we are uniquely commanded to rejoice. “V’samachtem lifnei Hashem Elokeichem shivat yamim,” says the pasuk in Emor. Rejoicing after salvation from near-destruction is a natural impulse – no commandment necessary. But Divine aid during a time of punishment, while the Jewish people were collectively struggling to become worthy of it, might not generate the same unmitigated gratitude. In fact, we might otherwise fail to celebrate it at all.
Considered in this light, the lesson of Sukkot seems clear – and remarkably apt for where we find ourselves right now.
No one who has lived through the past almost two years can say they have not been exceedingly difficult. Why the suffering? Why the unprecedented upheaval? Why the transposition of truth and untruth? Questions far outnumber answers here. Maintaining a posture of joy in mitzvot and in our relationship with Hashem under such circumstances requires supreme effort.
The concept of G-d’s omnibenevolence is well-anchored in Jewish tradition. Gam zu l’tova, Nachum Ish Gamzu famously said (earning him his moniker): this too is for the good. Rabbi Akiva went a step further, teaching Kol mah d’avid Rachmana l’tav avid, everything Hashem does is for the good. These axioms refer to good in the ultimate sense – that which we will one day see clearly but which, in the here and now, is often simply beyond us.
The famous poem about footprints in the sand comes to mind. Why, the struggling man asks G-d, are there only one set of footprints in the sand? Where were you, G-d, he demands, in my time of trouble? Ah, G-d tells him, but those are my footprints you see, as during your darkest moments, I was carrying you all the time.
Sukkot is G-d carrying us across the sand, literally through the barren desert, watching over us and providing for our needs. It is a lesson in gratitude for gifts bestowed in imperfect situations.
Like diamonds embedded in the dust, the most amazing and wondrous things may get buried in the complications of our lives. So on this chag we step outside and take a moment – or a week, as it were – to be reminded.