INTRODUCTION. Sukkot, which begins on the 15th of Tishrei, is the third in the cycle of pilgrimage festivals (which began with Shavous and Pesach). With Sukkot, this cycle reaches it culmination in “an exhilarating outburst of joy and a wealth of symbols that evoke memories of Divine protection in the past, lift us to a higher spiritual plateau and point the way to the Messianic future.”
THEMES OF THE HOLIDAY
Bitachon (Faith in G-d). The underlying spiritual motif of remembering (and reenacting) the Israelites’ dwelling in “temporary huts” in the desert emphasizes the notion of trust in G-d’s Divine protection (“bitachon”).
Ingathering of the Harvest. Sukkot is the time of the ingathering of the harvest, at which time we are reminded that G-d is the ultimate provider of our crops (and other needs).
Rejoicing. Sukkot is called Zman Simhatainu (the “season of our rejoicing”). Regarding Sukkot, the Torah states “v’samahta b’hagekha” (“and you shall rejoice in your festival”) and “vehayita ach same’ach,” (“and you shall remain only joyful”). R’ Samson Raphael Hirsch notes that the latter verse calls upon us to turn our rejoicing into a permanent trait. As R’ Nachman taught, “it is a great mitzvah to be always joyful.”
A Final Opportunity To Do Teshuvah. While our judgment is signed and sealed on Yom Kippur, it is not delivered until Hoshana Raba (the last day of Chol Hamoed Sukkot) and permission to enact any decrees of punishment is not granted until the following day, Shemini Atzeres. Thus, Succos serves as an opportunity for teshuvah (repentance or return), a chance to rescind any unfavorable judgments.
Huts. The “Sukkah” (which means a “tabernacle,” “booth,” or “temporary hut”) reminds us of the huts in which the Israelites lived during their forty-year journey in the desert.
Clouds of Glory. The Sukkah is reminiscent of the Clouds of Glory that protected the Israelites during their journey in the desert (Talmud, Sukkot 11b). It reminds us that we remain completely reliant on G-d’s mercy, and protected by His constant presence. Our joy on Sukkot is “complete not when the harvest is reaped and our barns filled to overflowing, but when we dwell in the Sukkah and realize that G-d is the true source of our security”.
Bitachon. Bitachon (discussed above) is exemplified by departing our homes for the Sukkah’s frail and makeshift shelter.
True Happiness. The Sukkah underscores that true happiness is found only in the eternal values of Torah and mitzvos, and that material possessions offer no real tranquility. (As Rav Dessler wrote, “There is no happiness in the world in material things . . . the one who enjoys a rich spiritual life is happy.”)
Making The Most Of Every Moment. The Sukkah reminds us that our life on earth is unstable and transitory, and that we must maximize each moment.
Closeness to G-d. The Sukkah provides us with a unique closeness with G-d. Gazing at the stars through the greenery of the s’chach (roof covering), we experience a connection to G-d that is almost palpable.
The World is Created Anew. The Sukkah reminds us that the world is created anew each moment. The Talmud states that we must build a new Sukkah each year; Rabbeinu Bachya teaches from this requirement that the world, represented by the Sukkah, is not simply governed by natural laws, but is recreated every moment and must never be taken for granted.
The Holy Temple. The Sukkah reminds us of the Holy Temple. Just as the Jews would leave their homes and journey to the Temple’s courtyard, so too we leave our homes and enter the Sukkah.
Chuppah. The Sukkah symbolizes a chuppah, reminding us of the “marriage” between G-d and the Jews.
World Peace. The Sukkah represents peace for the whole world, for it was on Sukkot that the non-Jewish nations were to bring offerings to the Temple in Jerusalem.
Jewish Unity. The Sukkah is an inviting meeting place for all Jews to join together and be at one with G-d. The Talmud (Sukkah 27b) states that “the entire nation of Israel may, and ought to, dwell in a single Sukkah”. Each Jew, no matter how far she/he has strayed from her/his Jewish roots, can join fellow Jews in the shelter of G-d’s embrace. As the Lubavitcher Rebbe, z’tl, wrote, “the Sukkah represents a oneness so deep and all embracing that all distinctions pale in significance before it.”
A Taste of the World To Come. The Sukkah represents not only a place of honor in this world, but also a taste of what is to be found in the World To Come. In fact, the Talmud (Bava Basra 75a) refers to the reward given to the righteous in the hereafter as a “sukkah”.
An All-Encompassing Mitzvah. The Sukkah involves the entire body, thus reminding us that our entire body and soul – our entire essence – must be involved in the service of G-d.
THE FOUR SPECIES (Esrog, Lulav, Hadassim and Arovos)
The Entire Jewish People. The Four Specifies represent the components of the Jewish people: (a) the Esrog (a tasty fruit with a pleasant aroma) represents one who possess both Torah knowledge and good deeds; (b) the Lulav (a branch of a date palm which produces a sweet fruit but has no fragrance) represents one who is proficient in Torah but lacks good deeds; (c) the Hadassim (which are sweet smelling but produce no edible fruit) represent one who performs good deeds but is deficient in Torah knowledge; and (d) the Arovos (which are both odorless and tasteless) represent one who lacks both Torah and good deeds. Taken together, they symbolize the totality of the Jewish people, all extending a helping hand to one another, all striving toward the same goals: fulfillment of the Torah to the best of their ability, thereby proclaiming to all that G-d is the Creator and Master of the universe; and that each group contributes its particular qualities and strength to the communal whole.
The Unification Of Our Being In The Service of G-d. The Esrog represents the heart, the Lulav represents the body, the Hadassim represent the eyes and the Arovos represent the mouth. Taken together, they represent the unification of the person in the service of G-d.
Water. All Four Species are plants of the land of Israel that require a good deal of water, thus representing the plenitude of water. Water is deeply connected to Sukkot: on the eighth day we pray for the winter rains on which the crops of the land of Israel depend. And water is, of course, the most vital element of all life. (See also below re: Simchas Beit Hasho’evah)
G-d’s Mercy; Union of Body and Spirit. The Four Species are held together and waved in six directions (i.e., up and down, plus the four cardinal points). This motion suggest the winds, which are connected to the autumn rain and represent G-d’s merciful concern for the earth and its inhabitants. Moving the body in the six directions also reminds us of the potential of the union of body and spirit on earth.
The Connection Between Sukkot and Yom Kippur. We emerge from a day of fast and prayer in trepidation, unsure of our fate for the coming year. Therefore, the joyous waving of the Four Species was introduced to uplift our spirits. Alternatively, Chazal teach that that we emerge from Yom Kippur full of joy and happiness, confident that we have been granted another year of life; just as a general returning victoriously from battle holds his baton aloft and waves it jubilantly in all directions to the cheering masses, so do we wave the Four Species.
The 613 Mitzvos. The Four Species represent the 613 mitzvos (i.e., the numerical value of the Hebrew word for Esrog is 600; with the other three species, the total is 613).
Divine Forgiveness. The Esrog is shaped like a heart, symbolizing the hope of Divine forgiveness for the illicit desires of the heart; the Hadassim are shaped like an eye, symbolizing the hope of Divine forgiveness for greed and envy; the Arovos are shaped like a mouth, symbolizing the hope of Divine forgiveness for idle talk and falsehoods; and the Lulav is shaped like a spine, symbolizing Israel’s singlehearted loyalty to G-d.
USHPIZIN. On each of the seven nights of Sukkot, we ceremoniously invite the presence of seven great figures of our past: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses Aaron, Joseph and David. Each day of Sukkot, another of these guests leads the others into the Sukkah. As the Zohar writes, when we leave our homes and enter the Sukkah for the sake of G-d’s name, we merit to welcome the Divine Presence, and these seven figures descend from Gan Eden to come to the Sukkah as our guests. The custom of inviting the Ushpizin, as they are called, also reminds us of the special quality of hospitality that we experience during Sukkot. As the Zohar says, “the portions of food that would be served to the heavenly Ushpizin should be served in the Sukkah to poor guests here on earth.” (Zohar, Emor 104a).
KOHELET. On the intermediate Shabbat of Sukkot we read the Book of Kohelet (Ecclesiastes). The happiness generated on Sukkot can easily lead us to immerse ourselves in worldly pleasures and cause us to lose sight of the spiritual nature of true joy. Kohelet, then, is designed to help us keep focused. Written by King Solomon, Kohelet is a sobering book that demonstrates the emptiness of mundane pursuits and comes to the conclusion that only spiritual values have lasting significance. Although the book appears to project a pessimistic outlook on life, the final passage underscores that its intent was to inspire us to greater attachment to G-d: “The sum of the matter, when all has been considered: Fear G-d and keep His commandments, for that is man’s whole duty.” (Kohelet 12:13).
SIMCHAT BEIT HASHO’EVAH. In the Holy Temple, every burnt and peace offering sacrificed was accompanied by a flour offering and by the pouring of a prescribed amount of wine on the altar. During the seven days of Sukkot, water too was poured on the altar as a libation accompanying the daily morning sacrifice. The celebration that accompanied this water libation was called Simchas Beis Hasho’evah. So great was this celebration that the Mishnah states that “whoever did not see the rejoicing of the Beis Hasho’evah never saw rejoicing in his lifetime.” Why was this celebration held on Sukkot? Among the many reasons: (a) on Sukkot, judgment is passed with regard to the rainfall; (b) purified on Yom Kippur, we enter the Sukkah — a tent of peace in which heaven and earth join together. This celebration bridges the gap between the “lower” and “upper” waters (i.e., between heaven and earth); and (c) we know perfect joy only when we cleave to our source of eternal life – Hashem. On Sukkot, we enter the Sukkah and come into the shelter of the Shechinah (Divine Presence) and stand united with our fellow Jews in cleaving to G-d – there could be no more joyous moment.