We presently find ourselves in the most chock-filled month of the year – Tishrei. There are so many holidays packed in to these 30 days that it would be arrogant to try to sum it all up in 1,200 words. Let’s focus on Sukkos and see if we can pull out an encompassing theme and perhaps even connect it to the Days of Awe that just passed. Join me; we have a way to go.
Why do we build a sukkah and live in it for seven days? The Shulchan Aruch (O.C. 625, 1) states, “The pasuk commands, ‘You shall dwell in sukkos for seven days, for I caused you to dwell in sukkos when I took you out of Egypt.’ The sukkos under discussion are the Clouds of Glory that Hashem surrounded us with to protect us from the heat and wild beasts of the desert.” The Shulchan Aruch is aiming to explain that the halacha accords with the opinion that the sukkos in the verse are referring to the Clouds of Glory, as opposed to the opinion that they refer to actual booths built by Bnei Yisrael. The relevance of this information is that we must actively think of those Clouds as we dwell in the sukkah if we wish to fulfill the mitzvah properly (ibid. M.B). However, one could ask a fair question. I would understand if Hashem commands us to build booths as a remembrance of booths. But why must we build booths as a remembrance of clouds? Why can’t we just stay in our homes and paper the walls with cotton balls? Why do we need to leave the house?
Perhaps we can answer this question with an idea from the Pesikta d’Rav Kahana (29). The Pesikta writes that on Rosh Hashanah Hashem passes judgment over the whole world and on Yom Kippur He seals the verdict. Since we may have been found lacking, we leave our homes shortly after Yom Kippur to fulfill any decree of exile that may have been made against us. (This idea would also explain the famous question of why Sukkos is placed in Tishrei instead of in Nissan when Bnei Yisrael left Egypt and were given the Clouds for the first time.)
But even this answer is difficult. Even if we allow for Sukkos to simultaneously be a recall of the Clouds of Glory and also fulfill a decree of exile (a difficult idea to swallow altogether), we would still have to wonder why Sukkos is called Zman Simchaseinu – the Time of our Rejoicing. While it is certainly accomplishing to relieve ourselves of any negative decrees, it seems inappropriate to refer to a time of exile with a joyous nomenclature. It seems we have a way to go. Let’s move along.
Before we try to answer these questions, let’s ask a third. Why do we take the Four Species on Sukkos? What is their message? The Midrash (Vayikrah Rabbah 30:2) compares the Four Species to a victory banner held aloft and waved by triumphant soldiers returning from the battlefield. We too wave the victory banner as we emerge from the judgment of the Days of Awe. This Midrash is baffling, especially when we view it in conjunction with the last point we made. Do we walk away from the Yamim Noraim worried that we were found lacking and are in need of exile or do we walk away confident in our victory? And to make matters more confusing, the Arizal writes (see M.B. 651, 34) that it is best to take the Four Species inside the sukkah! Can there be a greater contradiction than that?
Let’s turn to a quote Bnei Yissaschar brings down from the sifrei Kabbalah. Explaining the aforementioned Midrash, Bnei Yissaschar asks why these Four Species were chosen to comprise our victory banner. He explains that these are the exception to a very broad rule regarding Divine Providence. All the creations in the world are maintained by their own personal angel. Obviously, the power comes only from Hashem. He never loses sight of a single creation, and the angels have absolutely no power of their own. But even so, the flow of blessing is sent through an intermediate angel. These Four Species, on the other hand, are maintained by G-d Himself. Therefore, Bnei Yissaschar explains, they are perfect choices to form our victory banner – as they are from the “house of the King.”
We haven’t yet answered our questions. But now let’s check out a similar idea from the Vilna Gaon regarding the Clouds of Glory. In the aftermath of the Golden Calf Hashem declares “I shall annihilate them!” Moshe prays until finally Hashem relents. But there were consequences. Until now Hashem Himself accompanied His children. Now Hashem says, “I will send an angel before you.” Moshe objects, “If Your Presence does not go along, do not bring us forward! [Rather, what I desire is that] Your people be distinct from all the people on the face of the earth!” Finally, Hashem gives in and states, “Even this I shall do.” The Gra (Aderes Eliyahu, Ki Sisa) explains that the Clouds of Glory came to fill the dual request for G-d’s Presence and for His distinctive care. We see from here that not only do inanimate creations have either direct Providence or an intermediate angel, but nations do as well. We also see that Hashem granted us a direct Providence without an intervening angel.
Now perhaps we can answer all our questions. We had asked why we leave our homes. The answer is, it would not be sufficient to hang cotton balls inside to recall the Clouds of Glory because the mitzvah is to relive and imbibe the reality of Divine Providence. While obviously our houses are also completely in Hashem’s control, staying inside would lend us Hashem’s protection through an intermediary – the roof. Only under the sky can we truly live the message of Hashem’s guardianship.
As for our question regarding the contradiction of the sukkah being a joyous abode and simultaneously an exile, perhaps we can now explain as follows. Any other nation must indeed worry when forced to leave their land. If their patron angel has fallen out of favor, then what hope do they truly have? But the Jews are different. Even in exile we enjoy Divine Providence. Hashem joins us in our exile. “And despite all this, while they are in the land of their enemies, I will not be revolted by them nor will I reject them” (Vayikra 26:44). So while it may be true that we go to the sukkah in order to be in exile, we can still simultaneously recall the Clouds of Providence that accompany us. For this we rejoice.