Sukkot is an enigmatic festival. We never really get the chance to extensively discuss it in school, because it arrives mere days after Yom Kippur and Rosh HaShanah. It also includes the unique requirements of living in the “Dirat Arai,” “Temporary dwelling” (Sukkah 2a), of a Sukkah and taking the Arba Mnim. Many of Sukkots main details from its date to its Mitzvot are puzzling, requiring further analysis.
To solve the enigma of Sukkot we must turn to VaYikra Perek 23, Parashat HaMo’adot, which discusses the various holidays. This chapter is divided into four distinct sections and is built with a chiastic structure. It begins with an introduction to the topic of the Mo’adot, and then discusses Shabbat. It then reintroduces the topic, and goes on to deal with Pesach and Shavu’ot. The mitzvot of Pei’ah and Leket divide the Perek, which then continues with Rosh HaShanah, Yom Kippur, and a mention of Sukkot. The section then concludes with, “Eileh Mo’adei Hashem Asher Tikre’u Otam Mikra’ei Kodesh,” “These are the set times of the LORD that you shall celebrate as sacred occasions” (VaYikra 23:37). The real discussion of Sukkot takes place after the conclusion of this section: the Mitzvot of Sukkah and Lulav are only mentioned then. Finally, the chapter concludes for a second and final time. Perek 23 begins twice and ends twice, with both Shabbat and Sukkot serving as outliers among the Mo’adot.
Shabbat is obviously distinct from the other holidays; it is not related at all to the monthly calendar, instead taking place every week on Saturday, no matter what. However, Sukkot is not clearly divergent; it is calendar-dependent, and the Torah does connect it to the Yamim Nora’im of Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur, mentioning it in conjunction with them. It appears from the Pesukim that Sukkot definitely shares some relationship with both Shabbat and the Yamim Noraim, but is also somehow distinct, with some special characteristic that differentiates it from the rest of the holidays.
What is the common denominator between Sukkot and Shabbat? Hashem commands Bnei Yisrael, “BaSukkot Teishevu Shivat Yamim… Lema’an Yeide’u Doroteichem Ki VaSukkot Hoshavti Et Bnei Yisrael BeHotzi’i Otam Mei’Eretz Mitzrayim,” “You shall live in booths for seven days...in order that future generations may know that I made the Israelite people live in booths when I brought them out of the land of Egypt” (YaYikra 23:42-43). Rashi (ibid. s.v. Ki VaSukkot Hoshavti) explains that these booths were the Clouds of Glory that Hashem provided to shelter Bnei Yisrael. The Torah spells out the special nature of the Sukkah-- it is to understand that Hashem provided shelter for us, meaning that He was our sole protector; without him, we had nothing and nobody to shield us from harm. Like Sukkot’s Yedi’a and understanding, one of Shabbat’s main themes is Zechirah, or remembrance, as in, “Zachor Et Yom HaShabbat LeKaddesho,” “Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy” (Shemot 20:8). Ramban (Devarim 5:15 s.v. VeTa’am Al Kein Tzivecha) provides a rationale for the perpetual importance of Shabbat. Shabbat is a “Zeicher LeMa’aseh Bereishit,” “Remembrance for the act of Creation,” as well as a “Zeicher LeYetziat Mitzrayim,” “Remembrance for the act of the Exodus.”
Shabbat is originally a testimony to God’s creation of the world and resting on the Seventh day, while Yetzi’at Mitzrayim proves God’s ongoing mastery over the world, to which he originally testified in Ma’aseh Bereishit. We rest on Shabbat to understand that God created the world and thereafter retained complete control over it. Now, we can discern the shared thread between Shabbat and Sukkot. Both corroborate the fact that Hashem is our ultimate Sovereign He has complete and total dominion over us and is our only source of protection and sustenance in this world.
This idea can now help us resolve the difficulties we posed earlier, beginning with the second question. Why do we have to live in a temporary dwelling? The Torah, in Parashat HaMo’adot, introduces Sukkot for a second time by stating, “Ach BaChamishah Asar Yom LaChodesh HaShevi’i BeOspechem Et Tevu’at Ha’Aretz Tachogu Et Chag Hashem,” “But, on the fifteenth day of the seventh month, when you have gathered in the yield of your land, you shall observe the festival of Hashem” (VaYikra 23:39). The word ‘Ach’ is recognized by Chazal as a Mi’ut, implying a limitation. Da’at Mikra explains that the “But” of Sukkot explains how it differs from the other Chagim: it takes place “when you have gathered in the yield of your land.” The harvest threatens to be a time when people gloat over their own success, sometimes even at the expense of recognizing Hashem’s hand in it. Therefore, Hashem says to us “Ach,” “But,” watch out: even when you are most proud of your work, you must recognize that “Ki VaSukkot Hoshavti Et Bnai Yisrael BeHotzi’i Otam Mei’Eretz Mitzrayim.” Hashem is the single reason we find success in anything, including the harvest. The Mitzvah of Sukkah is to dwell in a Dirat Arai because it is through this that we realize that nothing is permanent; all of the abiding structure in our lives is held up by Hashem.
After Yom Kippur, many (Chas VeShalom) fall into a mindset of feeling like they ‘cheated’ Hashem on Yom Kippur and find themselves returning to their old habits. Sukkot serves as a reminder to uphold the internal change of the Yamim Noraim. The Ach of Sukkot recalls the previous Ach of Yom Kippur and admonishes Bnei Yisrael to remember Hashem and uphold their Teshuvah, especially in this time of great revelry and joy in the harvest.
The Midrash Tanchuma (VaYikra 23:19) explains the Lulav, Etrog, Hadasim, and Aravot, as allegorical allusions to the parts of the body. The Etrog represents the heart, the Lulav the spine, the Hadasim the eyes, and Aravot the lips. We bind all four together to symbolize that every part of our body is dedicated to serving Hashem. It is precisely at this time that we must take that action. Hashem urges us not to forget Yom Kippur, but rather to uphold our service of Him and to always remember that everything we have is thanks to Him.