The month of Tishrei is best known for the High Holidays, the "Days of Awe" characterized by extensive introspection and prayer.
There is another holiday, a more outwardly joyful occasion which follows the more solemn Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. On multiple occasions in the Torah, this holiday enjoys the distinction of being called the archetype “time of joy." This is the holiday of Sukkot.
What is special about this holiday? After being judged for life and death on Yom Kippur, on Sukkot we take the four species and, holding these, we pray for rain and the quality of life. The simple message is unmistakable – we want our lives to be comfortable, fruitful and rich.
On the other hand, Sukkot is a time when we leave the comfort of home to go reside in a temporary shack – a dwelling known as a sukkah. In the words of the Talmud (Sukkah 26a), we “dwell” in this shack as if it were our home. Thus it is Jewish practice to have one's meals in the sukkah. Those who are particularly fastidious also read, study, entertain and even sleep in the sukkah.
The sukkah reminds us how, when the Jewish people left Egypt, we dwelled in huts,
"You shall dwell in booths seven days; all that are citizens of Israel shall dwell in booths. So that your generations may know that I made the children of Israel to dwell in booths, when I brought them out of the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God." (Leviticus 23:42-43)
The Talmud (Sukkah 11b) explains that this verse refers not only to physical huts, but also to the protective Clouds of Glory which God lovingly spread out over the Israelite encampment to protect the people during their travels.
Love and Joy
This tender act can be better understood within the context of the description of the Exodus found in the Prophets. The leaving of Egypt is described the book of Jeremiah in romantic terms; the prophet is told by God that He recalls the dedication of the Jews, who like a damsel in distress where saved by God in Egypt, then as a love-sick bride the Jewish people followed God into the desert where we lived in these tents:
"Go and call in the ears of Jerusalem, saying: Thus says God: ‘I remember for you the kindness of your youth, the love of your nuptials; how you went after Me in the wilderness, in a land that was not sown.’" (Jeremiah 2:2)
The joy of Sukkot is to some extant a celebration of that love. We may leave our "permanent" homes, but when we enter the sukkah we enter an abode that is protected by God directly, and all the illusions of our man-made edifices, which bring so many of us comfort – or angst when they are threatened – are placed aside and put into perspective. We focus on that which really brings stability in our lives: God.
It is a journey reminiscent of the Israelites leaving the only place they knew as home, and then venturing into the unknown, foreboding desert. Ironically, their former homes were a place of slavery and constriction; the Hebrew word for Egypt is Mitzrayim, which has the root of tzar – constricted.
Our man-made edifices are placed aside and put into perspective.
Nonetheless there is a high degree of comfort in a home – any home – even one when you are being held back spiritually and abused physically. Even in such a home people often feel comfort and find it preferential to the unknown. Unfortunately there are times that people do not have the inner strength to leave these abusive relationships. With self-esteem in shatters, the victim believes that this home is theirs and their plight is deserved. Just as this can happen to an individual, it can happen to a nation.
God took the Jews by the hand and told us that neither we, nor anyone else, deserve such treatment. Numerous times in the Torah when treatment of the poor, weak or disenfranchised is mentioned, the mandate is accompanied with a frame of reference: "remember when you were slaves in Egypt."
God told us that we were desirable, that we are important, and that He wanted us to run away with Him. The Jews took a "leap of faith" and went with God into the unknown.
On Sukkot, the very time we pray for quality of life, rain and substance, we balance these prayers with what looks like an illogical gesture – we leave the very comfort we pray for and enter into a place with weak walls and a porous roof. We enter a place where we can more acutely understand that what we really need in life is not material possessions (as handy as they are). Tevye was right when he said there is no sin in being rich.
But what we need is love and meaning. The sukkah reminds us that God loves us – and that generates an incredible amount of meaning in our lives. One can view the Sukkah as a marriage canopy, which on the one hand is a very weak structure, but on the other hand represents one of – if not the strongest – element in our lives.
In antiquity, the love of God toward man was felt in by the protective clouds. Today it can be felt when we enter the sukkah. We dwell in the sukkah for seven days and recall that love. The result is the experience of joy which is unmatched by any other holiday. Thus the Torah describes Sukkot purely as the “Holiday of Joy.”