By: Dovid Samuels
“For seven days you shall dwell in sukkahs…so that your generations shall know that I made the Jewish people live in sukkahs when I took them out of Egypt.”  Apparently we build sukkahs to remind us of how Hashem gave us huts to live in as we became a newly formed nation from the furnace of Mitzrayim (Egypt). Homeless and wandering, Hashem provided housing for us, and we need to remember this miracle for all generations, so we should never think that our safety and protection come from anywhere other than Hashem.
A question: A homeless nation of ex-slaves, pulled into freedom but met with a hostile desert; a kindness from Hashem in the form of housing and shelter, but what about food and drink? We know that two other miracles were provided for us: the manna which fell from heaven – the food of angels – and the well of Miriam, a fountain of sweet water which followed us on our journeys until we finally entered our home. Why is it that we have an entire festival to commemorate the housing we were given, but nothing is done to remember two arguably more important miracles: those of food and drink? To answer this question, we need to re-evaluate what we are really celebrating, and reveal an entirely different reason why this festival is specifically called zman simchaseinu – the time of our happiness.
As it happens, the gemara relates a debate about what the verse is referring to when it tells us that Hashem made us dwell in sukkahs. According to Rabbi Akiva, the verse is referring to actual sukkah-booths, like the ones we are commanded to make each year. According to Rabbi Eliezer, the verse is in fact referring to the Ananei HaKavod (aka the Clouds of Glory), in which Hashem wrapped us as we journeyed through the desert. Interestingly enough, many commentators actually use Rabbi Eliezer’s opinion as the main way to explain the verse, that the sukkahs that we build are just illustrating Hashem’s Clouds of Glory. This alone would not be a problem, if not for the fact that not only does it seem to deviate from the simple understanding of the verse, but we also have a rule that we reluctantly rule like Rabbi Eliezer. Why, then, is Rabbi Eliezer’s view the prevailing one in this matter?
The truth is that we already know that there were Clouds of Glory. The Torah itself tells of the protection we received in the form of these clouds. That being the case, it would be logical to assume that the “sukkahs” we are commanded to commemorate would be the Clouds of Glory. After all, if we had the Ananei HaKavod themselves, why would we even need sukkahs? This makes Rabbi Akiva’s opinion even more difficult to understand. Not only is it strange that he says that the sukkahs which we build are to commemorate the huts in the desert rather than the clouds, but what was even the purpose of having the huts at all? Actually, there really was little need for the huts themselves. The Chayei Adam tells us that for most of the 40 years in the desert, everyone enjoyed the protection of the Clouds of Glory, however, when the Jews went out to fight battles against the likes of Sichon and Og, they left the protection of the clouds and relied on mere booths for protection. So, according to Rabbi Akiva, are these booths the ones we are commemorating? After all, they were only serving a minority of the Jewish people, and for only a brief period of time.
An explanation of Rabbi Akiva’s opinion could be found in connection to something he himself says in Pirkei Avos: Man is dear, for he was made in the image [of G-d]. A greater dearness was that it was made known to him that he was created in the image [of G-d]. This is a very interesting and important lesson. Man possesses a greatness in that he was created in the image of Hashem. This is our greatest opportunity to come close and cleave to our Creator, by using the skills and powers given to us through “His image” to achieve perfection. But what if we were never told about this tremendous gift? How many of us would realise the powers we possess, and how much of those powers would be squandered and misused? So Rabbi Akiva teaches us that, more than the gift itself, our dearness to Hashem is symbolised by the fact that he tells us the great gift which we have been given. Likewise, the Kedushas Levi, one of our great commentators, gives an analogy to a king who gives gifts to his people. There are two types of reactions to the receiving of his gifts: The first group of people experience a joy at having received a valuable gift, whereas the second and more sophisticated group rejoices at the mere fact that the king chose to give them a gift at all, regardless of its worth. A trophy is not inherently valuable, but what it symbolises is. An heirloom might be unsellable, but its sentimental worth is invaluable.
When Hashem prepares a miracle for us, we are well within our rights to celebrate the mere result and benefit of that miracle. We survived a war. We were freed from slavery. We crossed the sea. But our true joy comes from the fact that, regardless of what was achieved through any particular miracle, Hashem chooses us to be the recipients, again and again. And we receive gifts from Him in a way which is above and beyond the basic necessity. For this reason the Torah chooses the sukkah to be the symbol of remembrance. The manna and Miriam’s well were necessary, albeit particularly grand. Everyone needs to eat and drink. But as the Jews stepped out to war, they were forced to build booths. Why only then? Why weren’t they building booths for the whole 40 years? They obviously provided enough protection from the elements, otherwise Hashem wouldn’t have let the soldiers leave the protection of the clouds. The answer is that all the time the Jews were residing in the Clouds of Glory, with protection from everything, and luxury way beyond necessity, we might not have realised just how far Hashem goes to bestow His goodness upon us. But when the men had to leave and we saw that they were now relying on much more basic structures to survive, we realised what a tremendous gift we had been given for our entire stay in the desert. It wasn’t enough that we received the benefits of the gift, but we had to realise and know that Hashem had been gracing us with gifts much greater than we ever needed. Hashem takes care of our necessities, but our true source of joy is when we realise that He takes care of so much more than the bare essentials.
This is why we celebrate the sukkahs and not the food and drink. The manna and the well were crucial for our survival, but the luxury of the clouds was not. The clouds provided perfect climate control, protection from insects and beasts, and even flattened the bumps in the path ahead of the people to lighten the strain of travel. But what was the catalyst of this higher realisation? What made us recognise how much we mean to Hashem? It was the simple booths that the soldiers used in battle. It became known to us then that Hashem graces us with far more than we could ever imagine; that simply what would suffice is not enough for His chosen people. Hashem wants to give us more…much more. We then knew that our dearness to Him wasn’t just that we benefit from certain gifts, but that we know that we are so dear to Him that He will provide miracles, even unnecessary ones, just because He loves us.
Rabbi Akiva agrees with Rabbi Eliezer that we were truly blessed to receive the protection from the Ananei HaKavod, but he thanks Hashem more for the booths, as they showed us just how dear we are to Him. Without them, we would be thanking Hashem for protecting us, whereas now we can also thank Him for loving us. Just like he taught us that being created in the image of G-d is secondary to the fact that He told us that we were created in His image. This knowledge is the real show of love. This clarifies why all the commentators explain the verse to be talking about the Clouds of Glory, because even Rabbi Akiva agrees that we are to remember that miracle; it’s just that Rabbi Akiva can’t ignore that there was a heightened degree of knowledge achieved by the physical sukkahs. It also might explain why we refer to the festival as sukkos, in the plural, since we are celebrating both the miraculous protection from the Ananei HaKavod and the fact that Hashem allowed us to truly understand how much He loves us by contrasting the clouds with the actual sukkahs. This is what Rabbi Akiva refers to as a chibah yeseira, an extra degree of closeness to Hashem. This extra degree was achieved through the knowledge we attained from the actual sukkahs: that Hashem could have given us simple huts to live in for 40 years, but instead he gave us a truly phenomenal miracle.
This is perhaps why the verse says: “So that your generations shall know that I made the Jewish people live in sukkahs.” This concept of ‘knowledge’, or daas, is not mentioned with regards to other mitzvos. It was through the sukkahs in the desert that we came to ‘know’ just how much Hashem does for us. More than thanking Hashem for giving us shelter, we thank Him for giving us mansions…just because we’re special. That is a reason for true happiness, and it’s for this reason that the festival of sukkos is called zman simchaseinu – the time of our happiness.