The Torah commands us to build sukkos to commemorate the sukkos in which Bnei Yisrael dwelt in the midbar, as it says, “So that your generations will know that I caused the Children of Israel to dwell in huts [sukkos] when I took them from the land of Egypt …” (Vayikra 23:43).
In the Talmud (Sukkah 11b), there is a dispute as to the type of huts referred to here. R’ Eliezer says these are the Clouds of Glory; R’ Akiva says they are actual sukkos.
According to the opinion of R’ Eliezer, it is understood that the mitzvah commemorates the miracle that Hashem performed, providing Divine protection by means of the Clouds of Glory, which guided the Jewish Nation and shielded them from the cold and heat. According to R’ Akiva, though, what would be the reason to commemorate these wooden huts?
The Sefer Korban Aharon explains that when a person escapes prison, he is afraid of being found and returned to jail. He therefore seeks to hide in a closed place where he will not be discovered, not in an open hut. When the Jewish Nation fled Egypt, they were afraid they would be pursued, which they were. They should have sought a fortified place for protection. Nevertheless, they demonstrated their strong trust in Hashem, that He would save them, and they dwelt in sukkos. We were commanded to build sukkos to commemorate the bitachon (faith) the Jewish people demonstrated in the desert.
The commentaries highlight the words of the special HaRachaman that we recite on Sukkos, “May He erect for us the fallen sukkah [booth] of Dovid.” They note that this verse expresses a fundamental principle of the Jewish People’s faith and trust in Hashem. The word sukkah can also mean covering and protection. It is not physical strength that will save us, as it says (Zecharyah 4:6), “Not through army and not through strength, but through My spirit, said Hashem …” We have nothing to fear from our enemies if we have faith in Hashem; it is specifically the shaky and unstable sukkah that actually symbolizes Hashem’s strength and might.
The Imrei Emes (Ger) adds another reason for commemorating the wooden huts. He points out that the Jewish People left Egypt in great haste; the dough did not even have time to rise. Where did 600,000 people get wood for all these sukkos? Hashem performed a miracle and the sukkos descended from Heaven to shield the Nation from the heat and cold, thereby demonstrating His devotion and special love for us. It is this miracle that we commemorate and celebrate.
The Chasam Sofer notes that Hashem already told Avraham Avinu (Bereishis 15:13) that his children would be “strangers in a land not their own for 400 years.” Yet the Jewish Nation was freed after 210 years, leaving 190 years of exile that were still outstanding. Therefore, the people accepted upon themselves to live in temporary dwellings to offset those years that were owed, thereby fulfilling the obligation of the decree.
This is also the reason why the holiday of Sukkos follows Yom Kippur. We ask Hashem to accept our exile into the temporary dwellings during Sukkos as He did the Jewish Nation’s when they left Egypt. In the event that we are, chas v’shalom, not found meritorious on Yom Kippur, let our displacement into the sukkos serve to replace any other punishment.
An amazing incident took place in Kiryas Yovel, a largely non-religious neighborhood. As religious families began to move into the neighborhood they found that most apartments had no porches for their sukkah.
One man finally found a corner of the courtyard that seemed not to be used and erected his sukkah there. The next day, one of the neighbors approached him and told him that the spot he had chosen was actually a parking place. He suggested that he put up the sukkah in the back of the building instead.
Truthfully, the place had never been designated as a parking spot, and the back of the building would actually be better suited as a parking place. However, the man told his children that the sukkah is described as a sukkas shalom, and it would not be worthwhile to cause a dispute because of it, even if the opposing party was wrong. The man spent many hours taking apart the sukkah and then spent many more hours putting it up in the new spot.
On the first night of Sukkos, as the men were sleeping in the sukkah they heard a loud crash. They were all awakened from the noise, but they could not determine the source of the reverberation in the dark, and they went back to sleep.
The next morning, as they went to shul, they passed through the courtyard where they had originally erected the sukkah. They were shocked to see that a part of the building’s wall had fallen exactly in the place where their sukkah had been standing. If the man had insisted on keeping his sukkah on the original site, there would have been a horrific catastrophe. His desire for peace not only created a kiddush Hashem but saved the lives of his family.