The Torah explains the reason for the commandment to dwell in sukkot:
“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.” (Lev. 23:42–43)
The Talmud records a debate about what exactly we are enjoined to remember:
For it has been taught: “I made the children of Israel to dwell in booths.” These were clouds of glory, so said R. Eliezer. R. Akiva says: They made for themselves real booths. (Sukka 11b)
R. Eliezer and R. Akiva disagree regarding whether this verse refers to the ananei hakavod, the “clouds of glory” that guided and protected the Jewish people during their forty years of wandering in the desert, or to the booths that the Jews made for themselves during their travels.
According to R. Eliezer’s explanation, we commemorate the Divine protection of the Jewish people during their wandering in the desert. Apparently, mitzvat sukka is intended to arouse the memory of the Exodus from Egypt in general, and more specifically, God’s supernatural protection of the Jewish people throughout their travels in the desert. However, according to R. Akiva, why is it worth commemorating the booths that the Jewish people made for themselves?
The Ramban (ibid.) explains that through remembering the sukkot that the Jewish people made for themselves in the desert, we remember that God provided for all of the needs of the Jewish people in the desert. According to this explanation, R. Eliezer and R. Akiva agree that mitzvat sukka commemorates the divine protection that the Jewish people merited in the desert. If so, what is the difference between their opinions? Ostensibly, while R. Eliezer focuses upon the miraculous and supernatural protection of the Jewish people in the desert, symbolized by the ananei hakavod, R. Akiva focuses upon the day-to-day shelter that God provided through the natural order. This protection, although not supernatural, was no less extraordinary.
Alternatively, we can explain that while R. Eliezer focuses upon the Divine protection afforded to the Jewish people, R. Akiva notes the Jewish people’s active involvement in furthering the redemption – they made booths for themselves. As the prophet Jeremiah described, “Go, and cry in the ears of Jerusalem, saying: Thus says the Lord: I remember for you the affection of your youth, the love of your espousals; how you followed after Me in the wilderness, in a land that was not sown” (Jer. 2:2). The mitzva of sukka highlights the Jewish people’s dedication and loyalty to God throughout their travels (with, admittedly, a few exceptions), and their response to the divine gesture of yetzi’at mitzrayim. As we read in Megillat Eikha, “Turn us unto You, O Lord, and we shall turn [toward You]” (Lam. 5:21).
Finally, we might also suggest that the Torah focuses upon the “booths they made for themselves” because the purpose of the mitzva of sukka is to recall and to relive the experience of the Jewish people in the desert. Indeed, Rashbam (ibid.) writes:
“That your generations may know” – Its plain meaning is like those who say in Tractate Sukka: an actual sukka. And this is what it means: You shall make for yourself a Festival of Booths when you gather from your threshing floor and your wine-press, when you gather the corn of the field and your houses are filled with every good, grain, wine, and oil, that you shall remember that I made the Children of Israel dwell in booths in the wilderness for forty years without settlement and without inheritance. And from this you will offer thanksgiving to Him, who gave you an inheritance and your houses filled with every good, and you will not say in your hearts, “My power and the might of my hand have gotten me this wealth”…And therefore we go out of our houses that are filled with every good at the time of the [harvest] gathering and we dwell in sukkot as a reminder that they did not have an inheritance in the wilderness, nor houses to dwell in. And for this reason, God established the Festival of Sukkot at the time of gathering from the threshing floor and the wine-press, so that their hearts not swell on account of their houses that are filled with every good, lest they say, “Our hands have gotten us this wealth.”
Rashbam explains that we celebrate Sukkot during the “gathering” season in order to impress upon the Jewish farmer the goodness which God has bestowed upon him, in contrast to the bare existence of the Jewish people as they left Egypt.
In other words, we are commanded to experience the sense of transience, the exposure to the elements, and the uncertainty of nomadic life in the desert. R. Akiva challenges us to realize the truth of our existence – even our permanent homes are really “dirot arai” (temporary dwellings), and that which appears secure and permanent is actually vulnerable and ephemeral. Only God’s providence secured the Jewish people’s personal and national existence in the desert, and this is true in our day as well.
Excerpted from Hilkhot Mo’adim: Understanding the Laws of the Festivals (Koren, 2013)
Rav David Brofsky is a senior faculty member at Midreshet Lindenbaum, a member of Beit Hillel and the contributor of a weekly halakha shiur for the Virtual Beit Midrash (VBM). He is the author of Hilchot Tefilla: A Comprehensive Guide to the Laws of Daily Prayer (KTAV, 2010), and the recently published Hilkhot Moadim: Understanding the Jewish Festivals (Koren, 2013).