The Tur says that whenever you have an event during the week, it is hinted at in the Torah portion of the Shabbat before. It is not difficult to find the hint in this week’s parsha (Devarim 32:10). The verse says, “Yesovevenhu – Hashem surrounded you,” and Rashi comments: “… with the Ananei Hakavod, the Clouds of Glory.
There is a famous dispute in the Gemara (Sukka 11b) between R’ Eliezer and R’ Akiva regarding the reason we sit in a sukkah on Sukkot. According to R’ Eliezer, it is because Hashem surrounded us with Clouds of Glory in the desert (the source for Rashi’s perush above). According to R’ Akiva it is because Hashem caused us to dwell in sukkot when we left Egypt, the ramshackle “booths” we now call a sukkah. According to most commentaries (although there are notable exceptions, like the Rashbam), the halacha follows R’ Eliezer and not R’ Akiva.
The commentaries ask a pertinent question on R’ Eliezer (and also on R’ Akiva). Am Yisrael, in their forty years in the desert, were constantly surrounded by the Clouds of Glory (and they constantly dwelled in temporary dwellings). Why specifically celebrate the Clouds of Glory on the 15th of Tishrei?
Another compelling question regarding the festival of Sukkot is that, unlike the other festivals that commemorate a specific event (Pesach – our freedom, Shavuot – receiving the Torah), Sukkot is called “zman simchateinu,” the time of our joy. Why such a generic description and absence of a specific attribution as with the other festivals?
The Vilna Gaon in his commentary on Shir HaShirim explains why we celebrate the Clouds of Glory specifically on the 15th of Tishrei. When Am Yisrael sinned with the golden calf, the Clouds of Glory departed. Following that, on Yom Kippur, Hashem forgave Am Yisrael and commanded them to build the Mishkan. According to the Vilna Gaon’s calculation, the date that Moshe told the people to stop donating materials for the construction of the Mishkan and when the materials were physically handed over to Betzalel and Oholiav, was the 15th of Tishrei, and on this day the Clouds of Glory returned, a day of great rejoicing.
This explanation wraps everything up nicely for the method of R’ Eliezer and the Clouds of Glory. However, the opinion of R’ Akiva is left wanting. We can safely assume that R’ Akiva’s opinion had equally sound basis and therefore warrants further explication, if for nothing else than to provide it with similar closure, as the Vilna Gaon’s does for R’ Eliezer.
Firstly, there is another question on R’ Akiva’s method. If we assume, that the “sukkot” referred to in the text mean the booths in which Am Yisrael dwelled in the desert, we have repeated contradictions to that fact. When Bilam tried to curse Am Yisrael (Hashem flipped the curse into a blessing), what did Bilam say? “How fine are your tents [sons of] Yaakov.” If Am Yisrael were dwelling in sukkot, why did Bilam say “tents” and not “sukkot?” In many other instances we have repeated references to “tents” – Shemot 18:7; Shemot 33:8 and 33:11; Vayikra 14:8; Bamidbar 11:10 and 16:26; etc. – and none to “sukkot.”
The dispute between R’ Eliezer and R’ Akiva revolves around a verse (Vayikra 23:43) – “In order that your generations will know that I caused Bnei Yisrael to dwell in Sukkot when I took them out of the land of Egypt, I am the L-rd your G-d.”
The common interpretation of the word sukkot here is “booths.” However, there is an alternative way to understand this verse – that it refers to the name of a place. The first place that Am Yisrael traveled to after leaving Raamses in Egypt was Sukkot. If we go with this method, that Sukkot was a place, then what was so special about the place Sukkot that warrants us remembering it and celebrating an entire festival around it (according to R’ Akiva)?
The first interesting thing about this leg of Am Yisrael’s journey is mentioned in Rashi (Shemot 12:37). Although the distance between Raamses and Sukkot was 120 “mil” (approximately 120km), Am Yisrael experienced “kfitzat haderech,” a kind of “teleporting,” and reached Sukkot in only one hour. However, the crux of the importance of Sukkot is brought by the Or HaChayim (Shemot 12:39). It was in Sukkot that Am Yisrael baked their dough that did not have a chance to ferment (because they left Egypt in a hurry) – into matzot. Wow! This was where they baked the matzah after leaving Egypt! And the question is: Who cares? Why, according to R’ Akiva, would we celebrate an entire festival called Sukkot –the festival of our joy – because of the baking of the matzot?
Sefer Meir Panim (chap. 15) cites a perush that the sin of the Tree of Knowledge was that Chava took grains, the fruit of the tree, which she ground into flour, mixed with water, left to ferment, and baked into chametz bread. Our Sages say that our Exodus from Egypt was atonement for the sin of Adam and Chava. The Exodus, the Ten Plagues, etc., were a reenactment of the creation of the world and a restoration of the world to its state before the sin. This process culminated in Sukkot, where Am Yisrael baked their unfermented dough into matzot to atone for the chametz bread baked by Chava and for the role the water played in this sin. This signaled the final “resetting” of the Creation, an event of the greatest joy imaginable. According to one opinion in the Gemara (Rosh Hashana 27a), the sin took place in Tishrei. Why on the 15th? This is explained by a verse in Hoshea (3:2) referring to the grains (and water) of the Korban Sotah (to atone for the sin of Chava) – on the 15th.
This, according to R’ Akiva, is why Sukkot is called the festival of joy, why it is water-related, why it is celebrated on the 15th of Tishrei – wrapped up as tightly as the Vilna Gaon wraps up R’ Eliezer.
Parshat HaShavua Trivia Question: When Moshe rebukes Am Yisrael, why does he call on the heaven and earth as his witnesses?
Answer to Last Week’s Trivia Question: Where was the Sefer Torah written by Moshe stored, inside the Aron Habrit or next to it? It is a dispute in the Gemara (Bava Batra 14b): R’ Yehuda says it was placed on a shelf protruding from the Aron. R’ Meir says it was placed inside the Aron alongside the luchot.