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Parshas Sukkos (5771)

Sukkos: What They Never Taught You In Hebrew School

Did you ever read or hear something that gave you a whole new insight into something that you never knew before? This week, we'd like to share with you an explanation from the Vilna Gaon (lit. the “genius from Vilna”, the great 18th-century Talmudist and Kabbalist, Rabbi Eliyahu ben Shlomo Zalman) which opened my eyes to a whole new understanding of the what exactly we’re celebrating on the Festival of Sukkos, and I hope it will do the same for you.

Everybody knows that the reason why we live outside in makeshift huts with flimsy roofs for the seven days (eight days outside the land of Israel) of Sukkos, is to commemorate the miraculous, tent-like “Clouds of Glory” which G-d enveloped our ancestors in during their entire forty-year sojourn through the desert.

As the Torah states: “You shall dwell in Sukkos [protected tents] for a seven-day period; every native in Israel shall dwell in Sukkos. So that your generations will know that I caused the Children of Israel to dwell in Sukkos when I took them from the land of Egypt; I am the Lord, your G-d” (Leviticus 23:42-43).

There are a couple of serious questions we can ask here:

(1) The Clouds of Glory that enveloped the Jewish people first appeared upon their exodus from Egypt in the spring (see Rashi in his commentary to Numbers 10:34) – so why do we commemorate this miracle on Sukkos, which is in the fall?

(2) The Sages teach us that there were actually three miracles that the Jewish people experienced on a daily basis during their years of travelling through the desert: they ate the Manna that fell down for them each day from heaven; they drank from a spring that poured forth from a mysterious Rock that followed them wherever they went; and they were surrounded at all times by Clouds of Glory which protected them from the blazing sun above them, from their enemies on all sides, and from the hot sand beneath their feet. So why do we choose to commemorate only the miracle of the Clouds of Glory and not the other two?

(3) In the Kiddush we make at home, as well as in the special prayers we add for the holiday during services at the synagogue, the Festival of Sukkos is referred to “the Time of our Joy”. Why is Sukkos considered more a time of joy than Passover or Shavuos? After all, even greater and more significant miracles occurred on those holidays – on Passover we witnessed the Ten Plagues and the Splitting of the Sea, and on Shavuos we experienced Divine Revelation when we received the Torah at Mount Sinai - yet only Sukkos is called “the Time of our Joy”. Why?

The Vilna Gaon answers these questions with a novel approach. He explains that the Three Festivals – Passover, Shavuos, and Sukkos – represent the various stages of our love relationship with G-d.

As we pray to G-d at the beginning of the main section of every Shemoneh Esrei (the central prayer of the Jewish liturgy) that is recited on the festivals – “You have chosen us from all the peoples; You loved us; and You found favor in us …” Our “engagement” to G-d, when He first chose us, was when He took us out of Egypt to be His people, and which is commemorated on the Festival of Passover. The “wedding” between us and G-d took place at Mount Sinai, where G-d showed His great love for us by giving us His Torah, which we accepted upon ourselves and our descendants forever. – an event that is commemorated on Shavuos.

At this point in the relationship, G-d showed us true love by doing more than just feeding us Manna and giving us to drink from the Rock – after all, He wasn’t going to let us starve - G-d went so far as to envelop us and cushion us in wonderful Clouds of Glory. These Clouds of Glory represent the fact that G-d caused His Divine Presence to rest upon us so that we could be close to Him.

When the Jewish people sinned and worshipped the Golden Calf, explains the Vilna Gaon, G-d removed His presence from among the people and the Clouds of Glory departed. After much repentance and prayer on behalf of the Jewish people, the sin of the Golden Calf was forgiven on Yom Kippur, the 10th day of the Hebrew month of Tishrei, when Moses came down from the mountain with a second set of Twin Tablets of Testimony with the Ten Commandments engraved in them.

However, although though the Jewish people were forgiven for the sin of the Golden Calf, they were not yet sure that G-d would “find favor” in them just as He had before they strayed, and that the love relationship they once enjoyed was back again – so long as the Clouds of Glory did not return.

The day after Yom Kippur, the 11th of Tishrei, Moses was commanded by G-d to tell the Jewish people to build a Mishkan, a Tabernacle, in which G-d could rest His Divine Presence amongst the people. On the 12th and 13th days of Tishrei, the people brought in their donations of gold and silver and other raw materials for the building of the Mishkan. On the 14th of Tishrei, Moses distributed all the materials among the various craftsmen. On the 15th day of Tishrei, the actual building of the Tabernacle began – and at that very moment, the long-awaited Clouds of Glory once again enveloped the Jewish people – signifying that the their repentance was fully accepted by G-d and that He truly found favor in their eyes.

It is for this reason, explains the Vilna Gaon, that each year, on the 15th day of the month of Tishrei, we commemorate the miracle of the Clouds of Glory by celebrating the holiday of Sukkos. It is not the miracle itself that we are remembering – after all, it was just one of three miracles that the Jews experienced immediately upon leaving Egypt in the spring. Rather it is the return of the departed Clouds of Glory in the fall on the 15th of Tishrei that we remember and celebrate each year – as it represents the third and most important stage of our love relationship with G-d – the fact that He “found favor” in us and loved us the same as before even though we had sinned to Him.

Therein lies the reason why the Festival of Sukkos, above all other holidays, is called “the Time of our Joy”. This is because there is no greater joy than knowing and feeling that G-d loves us – and will always take us back and cherish us the same as before – so long as we do our best to come back to him.

This Wednesday evening, as Jews all around the world sit in their Sukkahs enveloped once again in G-d’s protective and loving embrace, may we all merit to feel the true joy that is the essence of the holiday of Sukkos – the joy of knowing and experiencing G-d’s unconditional love. Amen.


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