Rabbi Danny Gimpel
When the Beit Hamikdash (Temple) stood, the Jewish people would annually travel up to Jerusalem for the three pilgrimage festivals -- Passover, Shavuot, and Sukkot. Of the three, only Sukkot is defined by an emotion, as we find in our prayers that Sukkot is called "the holiday of our happiness".
When the Beit Hamikdash (Temple) stood, the Jewish people would annually travel up to Jerusalem for the three pilgrimage festivals -- Passover, Shavuot, and Sukkot. Of the three, only Sukkot is defined by an emotion, as we find in our prayers that Sukkot is called "the holiday of our happiness". In order to appreciate how this festivals essence is happiness, we must analyze how Sukkot brings us to this emotional high. Perhaps the place to begin is the seasonal significance of Sukkot. In the land of Israel, the harvest season spans from the end of summer to the beginning of winter, hence the Torahs reference to Sukkot as "The Festival of the Harvest." The harvested produce from the fields provided sustenance throughout the winter, promoting a feeling of comfort and security. Furthermore, the rains which would come in the approaching winter season were essential for survival. Unlike in Egypt where the predictable yearly overflow of the Nile provided the perfect natural water source for crops, leading the Egyptians to believe that the Nile was their source of life, the Jewish people were brought specifically to the land of Israel where their special relationship with Hashem could be developed through dependence on the Divinely sent rains, the reward for our keeping the Torah. Therefore, the rainy season in Israel really meant life for the future, and its approach was reason for great joy. It follows as well that specifically during Sukkot in the Temple, there was a special service of "pouring waters" on the altar as part of the celebration of the upcoming rain. This service, known as the Simchat Beit HaShoevah, was the climax of their happiness and rejoicing. However, the seasonal timing of Sukkot is not the only catalyst of happiness for this festival. The fact that Sukkot is celebrated in close proximity to the High Holidays reveals another dimension of its happiness. Our sages compare the festival of Sukkot with the Jewish people returning from war. Having just gone through the judgment of Rosh Hashanah and the atonement of Yom Kippur, we stand together before Hashem on Sukkot with the lulav and etrog in hand, symbols of our victory in war. The fact that Hashem has granted us a complete forgiveness for our sins on Yom Kippur inspires within us a feeling of tremendous relief and happiness. Aside from the timing significance of Sukkot, Rabbeinu Bachya, a 14th century Torah commentator, provides a further insight into the happiness of this festival through its mitzvot. We are required to leave our homes and dwell in huts for seven days. The sages teach that our dwelling in the sukkah commemorates the way that the Jewish people in the desert lived in huts and were protected from the elements by the Clouds of Glory. When we live in sukkot, we commemorate the physical protection that Hashem provided for us during our travels in the desert. We exchange our permanent dwellings for temporary structures, just as the Jewish people lived in temporary huts in the desert before entering their permanent home in the land of Israel. The Clouds of Glory also provided a form of spiritual protection. They surrounded the Jewish people in the desert on six sides, while a seventh cloud Divinely guided them. The hidden significance to our observance of living in huts is that it reminds us of the spiritual guidance and protection we received from the Clouds of Glory, because we celebrate Sukkot during the seventh month of the Hebrew calendar for seven days, correlating to the seven Clouds of Glory. This final dimension of physical and spiritual protection inspires within us all of the deepest emotions of gratitude and happiness. For us, the festival of Sukkot represents sustenance from the harvest and rains, forgiveness with a new start after the High Holidays, and finally our close bond with Hashem who guides and protects us both physically and spiritually.
Rabbi Danny Gimpel, a native Atlantan and an alumnus of Yeshiva Atlanta, writes from Israel.
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