In the special holiday prayers recited during Sukkot, we refer to this festival as “zeman simhatenu – our occasion of joy.” The theme of Sukkot is, unmistakably, simha – joy. In fact, during the times of the Bet Hamikdash, a festive celebration called the Simhat Bet Hasho’ebah was held every night in the Temple courtyard, when the greatest rabbis would sing, dance, and even juggle. The Mishnah (Sukkah 51a) teaches that one who has never witnessed this celebration “never saw joy in his life.” Sukkot marks the time of our greatest joy, a joy whose intensity has no parallel.
If so, then we need to ask ourselves, what are we so happy about? What is the reason for the special joy of Sukkot? What are we celebrating?
Gd’s Miraculous Clouds
The Torah (Vayikra 23:43) tells us to reside in sukkot throughout the seven days of this holiday “in order that your [future] generations will know that I had the Children of Israel dwell in sukkot when I brought them out of Egypt.” In other words, we reside in sukkot to commemorate our ancestors’ sojourn through the wilderness after leaving Egypt, a period during which they lived in “sukkot.”
The Gemara (Sukkot 11b) brings two opinions in explaining this verse. The simpler and more intuitive understanding is that each time Beneh Yisrael encamped, they erected makeshift huts – like our sukkot – in which they lived during their stay at that site, and these are the “sukkot” which we commemorate on this Yom Tov. The second opinion, however, explains that the Torah refers not to actual huts, but rather to the ananeh hakavod – “clouds of glory.” Throughout our ancestors’ sojourn in the wilderness, they were encircled by a miraculous series of clouds which offered them comfort and protection. It kept them cool during the day, and warm at night; it made the ground beneath them smooth and pleasant to tread upon; it shielded them from enemies; and it even laundered their clothing and polished their shoes. According to the second view in the Gemara, the sukkot in which we reside commemorate these supernatural clouds which Gd provided Beneh Yisrael in the desert.
Interestingly enough, the Shulhan Aruch (Orah Haim 525) follows this second opinion, explaining that we reside in a sukkah during Sukkot to commemorate the ananeh hakavod. The Bayit Hadash (Rav Yoel Sirkis, Poland, 1561-1640) explains that the Shulhan Aruch incorporated this into his presentation of the laws of Sukkot because we must have this in mind in order to properly fulfill the mitzvah. Since the Torah specifically told us the reason for residing in the sukkah – so that we remember the “sukkot” in the desert – we are required to be mindful of this commemorative function of the sukkah, as this is part of the obligation. When we enter the sukkah to eat, we must reflect that we are commemorating the miraculous “clouds of glory” which encircled our ancestors in the wilderness.
This understanding of the mitzvah of sukkah gives rise to an obvious question. Why is this the only one of the miracles performed for our ancestors in the desert that the Torah commands us to commemorate? For forty years, Gd fed them manna, bread which fell from the heavens each morning, providing nourishment without producing bodily waste. Moshe struck a rock which then gave forth water, and this well actually traveled with the people for forty years so they had a reliable source of water in the arid desert. Were these miracles any less significant than the ananeh hakavod? Why do we have a special Yom Tov to celebrate the clouds, but no holidays celebrating the manna or the well?
Rebuilding a Broken Relationship
The answer to this question, which changes our entire perspective on the holiday of Sukkot, was given by the Gaon of Vilna (1720-1797). Ingeniously, the Gaon shows how the origins of Sukkot can be traced back to the sin of the golden calf and its aftermath.
Just forty days after beholding Gd’s revelation at Mount Sinai, Beneh Yisrael betrayed the Almighty by fashioning and then worshipping a graven image. Seeing that Moshe had not returned from the mountaintop at the time they thought he would, the people panicked, and took the drastic measure of worshipping an idol. Gd initially decided to annihilate the nation for this grievous act of betrayal, but Moshe begged Him to forgive them, and He obliged. However, the Gaon explains, although Gd agreed to allow the people to survive, He was not, at that point, prepared to fully restore the relationship. He continued sustaining them in the otherwise uninhabitable wilderness, providing them with manna and water, but He removed the ananeh hakavod. Bread and water are bare necessities, whereas the clouds of glory were a special gift, a symbol of Gd’s special love for the people. When a husband wants to give a wife a present as an expression of his love for her, he does not buy her a loaf of bread or carton of milk; he buys a piece of jewelry or some special accessory that she doesn’t need. Similarly, the ananeh hakavod were a luxury item, providing the people with an additional level of comfort which they did not need for their basic survival. Therefore, even after Gd forgave the people for their betrayal, He took away this gift. He forgave them, but He did not love them as He had before they worshipped the golden calf.
In order to fully repair the broken relationship, Beneh Yisrael were commanded to build the Mishkan. After having given large amounts of gold jewelry for a golden calf, Gd instructed them to donate larger amounts of gold and other items for the purpose of constructing a sacred site where the Shechinah (Divine Presence) would reside. By showing their great love and devotion to Gd by generously donating materials and going through the trouble of building the Mishkan and all its furnishings, they would fully restore their bond with the Almighty.
Our sages teach that Moshe presented this information, and the detailed commands for building the Mishkan, on the 11th of Tishri, the day after Yom Kippur, nearly three months after the sin of the calf. The Vilna Gaon shows from the text of the Humash (Shemot 36:3) that Beneh Yisrael donated materials over the next two days – the 12th and 13th of Tishri. On the following day, the 14th, the artisans began the work to build the Mishkan, and then, on the 15th, the clouds of glory returned, signaling the full restoration of the people’s relationship with Hashem, that Hashem now loved them just as He had before their sin.
This, the Vilna Gaon explains, is what we celebrate on Sukkot, which begins on the 15th of Tishri. We celebrate not the ananeh hakavod themselves – but rather their return after the sin of the golden calf. We celebrate the fact that although we had made a terrible mistake, we were nevertheless able to repair our wrongdoing and fully restore our bond with Hashem.
Our Annual Rectification
We undergo a similar process every year during this season.
Like our ancestors, we spend the month of Elul, and the first part of Tishri, begging for forgiveness. We acknowledge our misdeeds, repent, and seek to repair our strained relationship with Gd. Then, on Yom Kippur, He mercifully forgives us. However, this forgiveness is not the end of the story. Forgiveness alone does not fully restore the bonds of love between us and the Almighty. In order to achieve a complete rectification, we, like our ancestors in the desert, spend the days following Yom Kippur building a “Mishkan.” We devote a great deal of time and energy into the construction of the sukkah; there is a flurry of activity and lots of excitement as the Jewish world focuses its attention on building a special structure in which we will reside together with the Almighty for seven days. And so when the 15th of Tishri arrives, Gd’s presence rests among us. After our process of repentance followed by several days of intense work, we have achieved the full rectification of our wrongdoing, and the full restoration of Gd’s love for His cherished nation. Just as the ananeh hakavod returned to our ancestors on the 15th of Tishri, announcing the complete restoration of Gd’s love, we, too, enter the sukkah on this day, where we are welcomed by Gd, who has come to reside among us once again.
This explains why the special Simhat Bet Hasho’evah celebration was held during Sukkot. There were times over the course of the year when we directed our joy, passion and enthusiasm toward forbidden delights, toward vain pleasures, toward meaningless endeavors. Now, having concluded the process of teshuvah, we direct our excitement toward the service of Hashem. We show that our true source of joy is our relationship with Him, the privilege we have to serve Him and earn His love and His grace.
The Torah relates (Shemot 32:19) that Moshe shattered the stone tablets upon seeing the people dancing as they worshipped the calf (“vayar et ha’egel umeholot”). What angered him was not the worship of the calf per se, but rather the people’s fervor and excitement as they betrayed Gd. We, too, have been guilty of “dancing” around “golden calves,” of looking to vanity for joy and fulfillment, of substituting the service of Gd with meaningless activities and the unbridled pursuit of material delights. Sukkot is the time to rectify this mistake by investing feeling and emotion into our relationship with Hashem. This is “zeman simhatenu” – the time when we show that our greatest source of joy and satisfaction is our connection with our Creator.
We spend the week of Sukkot “in the clouds,” experiencing the ananeh hakavod, reflecting on Gd’s special love for us, on the fact that despite our faults and mistakes, we are still cherished. And we reciprocate this love by celebrating our bond with Hashem, and showing that we consider this bond the most precious gift in the world.