By: Brandon Blumenau
We are commanded to rejoice on Pesach, Shavuos, and Sukkos. We refer to these festivals as yomim tovim, or “good days”, on which we dress well, eat well, and daven well. These are times we celebrate with family, friends, and even Hashem Himself. Pesach and Shavuos are undoubtedly happy times for the Jewish People, but only Sukkos is described by our Rabbis as zman simchaseinu, the time of our happiness. The obvious question is what’s there to be so happy about on Sukkos?
We have a very rich heritage, and many great Jews throughout the ages have contributed towards answers to our question. Let’s begin in 13th century Spain and explore the answer of the Sefer HaChinuch (the book of mitzvah education), authored by an outstanding scholar whose identity remains a mystery until today. The Chinuch writes that Tishrei, the Hebrew month in which Sukkos falls out, is a naturally joyous period because it is the time when famers bring their harvested crops and fruits into their granaries and store houses. Farmers can finally begin to enjoy, both gastronomically and financially, the fruits (pardon the pun) of their unremitting toil that began months before. Times of happiness and contentment can unfortunately cause a person to forget about Hashem. Hashem therefore commanded us to dedicate our natural enjoyment at this time to Him. The four species represent our crops and, when we take the lulav, esrog, hadassim and arovah in our hands, we acknowledge that the ultimate source of our success is Hashem. In this way, the farmer’s happiness and rejoicing over his bountiful harvest become a source of a connection to Hashem, rather than a cause to forget Him, providing us with a valuable lesson of how a Jew should respond to financial success.
And for those of us who aren’t farmers? There are other compelling reasons to rejoice at this time of year even if we’re not farmers living in the land of Israel. Let’s explore part of an answer provided by Rabbi Matisyahu Salomon, the current mashgiach ruchani (spiritual supervisor) of the famed Lakewood Yeshiva in New Jersey. According to the Talmud, the sukkah that we build each year reminds us of the clouds of glory that accompanied the Jewish People through their travels in the desert. The clouds of glory evidenced Hashem’s protection and direction of the Jewish People, and ultimately represented the intimate relationship between Hashem and His people. After the sin of the golden calf, not only were the Tablets, on which were imprinted the Ten Commandments, shattered, but the clouds of glory were withdrawn. Our relationship with Hashem had been severely damaged. After Moshe descended from the mountain on the first Yom Kippur, he informed us that Hashem had forgiven us for the sin of the golden calf, but still the clouds did not return until the 15th of Tishrei, the day on which we celebrate Sukkos. According to the Gaon of Vilna, of 18th century Lithuania, it is the return of these clouds that we commemorate on Sukkos. But, if we were already forgiven for the sin of the golden calf when Moshe Rabeinu descended the mountain on the first Yom Kippur, then why were the clouds only returned five days later?
Rabbi Salomon employs an idea from Rabeinu Yonah, of 13th century Spain, to answer this question: there is a difference between forgiveness and full restoration of a relationship. For example, a wife may do something to violate her husband’s trust, which results in the husband harbouring resentment and perhaps even some hatred toward his wife. After realizing the folly of her ways, she may seek her husband’s forgiveness. He may forgive her, but their original relationship may not be fully restored so quickly, as, although the resentment and hatred may be gone, feelings of love and affection have yet to return. And so it was after Moshe descended from the mountain. Hashem had forgiven us for the sin of the golden calf, but our original relationship had not been fully restored. His love and affection for us was only again manifest with the return of the clouds on the 15th of Tishrei. So what happened between the 10th of Tishrei and the 15th of Tishrei to restore fully our relationship with Hashem?
The answer is contained in one idea: the Mishkan. On the 11th of Tishrei, Moshe commanded in Hashem’s name for the Jewish People to build a Mishkan, a home, so to speak, for Hashem on this earth. The Jewish People very generously contributed the materials needed for the construction of the Mishkan, and thereby demonstrated their great zeal to do Hashem’s will and draw close to Him. When the people actually began the construction of the Mishkan on the 15th of Tishrei, Hashem returned the clouds to indicate that He again desired their service and also wished to draw close to them. The return of the clouds was a catalyst for great happiness for the Jewish People because they now had proof that their relationship with Hashem was back to where it had been before the sin of the golden calf. This then is the happiness that pervades Sukkos each year – the happiness that results when our relationship with Hashem is made whole again. And, as it was for them at that time, so it is for us ever since. During the year, we damage our relationship with Hashem through the sins that we do. After Yom Kippur, we achieve atonement for many of them, but Hashem’s love and affection is not fully restored until Sukkos. Leading up to Sukkos, we each busy ourselves with building a sukkah, and with purchasing lulavim and esrogim at no small cost. After Yom Kippur we demonstrate our great desire for Hashem’s mitzvos and our desire to again be close to Him, and when we actually fulfill the mitzvahs on Sukkos, Hashem responds with abundant love and affection for us.
Let’s suggest one final analogy, which will help us to understand that it is not only we who desire to return to Hashem, but Hashem also very much desires our return. Imagine a son who rebels against his father, and who is, consequently, expelled from his father’s house. Imagine that after much effort at reconciliation, the son is forgiven by his father and once again finds great favour in his father’s eyes. Will his father not then invite his son back into his home? Of course he will! The sukkah can be described as the home of Hashem. Every year, after we receive atonement on Yom Kippur, and after we demonstrate our desire to do Hashem’s mitzvos, Hashem invites us into the sukkah and to return to Him, to come back home. Can there be any greater happiness than a son who reconciles wholeheartedly with his Father?