The Mystery in Sukkot Commemoration
The Mystery in Sukkot Commemoration

It is quite striking that the events commemorated by Sukkot would appear to be disconnected from contemporary Jewish life, as well as from the life of our nation ever since we entered the land of Israel after our 40-year sojourn in the Desert 3500 years ago.

Unlike the other Festivals, which commemorate historical events whose impact is permanent and is directly and tangibly felt for eternity, the events commemorated by Sukkot seem to have come and gone. Pesach commemorates the liberation from Egyptian bondage and God drawing us close to Him and His service, Shavuot commemorates the giving of the Torah at Sinai, Rosh Hashanah commemorates Creation and God's mastery and kingship over the universe, and Yom Kippur commemorates God's granting of atonement for the Chet Ha-Egel (the Sin of the Golden Calf) and God's reconciliation with the Children of Israel - all of which are historical events whose direct impact is felt to this day and whose significance is concretely manifest in our eternal conduct and our relationship with God.

However, the events commemorated by Sukkot appear to be a thing of the past, largely disassociated with ongoing Jewish life. R. Eliezer maintains that Sukkot commemorates the Ananei Ha-Kavod, the Clouds of Glory, which surrounded the Children of Israel during their sojourn in the Desert, and R. Akiva maintains that Sukkot commemorates the dwelling of the Children of Israel in huts during their sojourn in the Desert (under divine protection; Talmud - Tractate Sukkah 11b).

That being said, there are no longer any Ananei Ha-Kavod protecting us, nor do we any longer live in huts in a desert; these phenomena were temporary and terminated upon the conclusion of the sojourn in the Desert. Thus, which facet of eternal Jewish existence does Sukkot signify and address? There were countless miracles in the Desert, all of which occurred to protect and benefit Children of Israel, yet those miracles have no Festival commemoration and no tangible, long-term manifestation. What is it about the events commemorated on Sukkot that distinguish them from other events and conditions during the Desert experience which are not signified by special observances?

In what way are the events commemorated by Sukkot similar to the historical events commemorated by the other Festivals?

The answer is that just like the events commemorated by the other Festivals permanently shaped and defined our lives, such is the case regarding the events commemorated by Sukkot. Living in the shadow of the Shechinah (Divine Presence) under special supernal shelter and sanctuary, which marked our experience in the Desert as signified by Sukkot, was not a one-time, temporal state; on the contrary, the supernatural existence of the Desert, in which our ancestors lived in communion with God and were actively aware of His immanent and protective Presence, permanently shaped and defined the Jew for eternity.

The events of Sukkot impacted forever upon our consciousness, embedding deep within us an active awareness of God’s Presence and Providence. Living in the veil of the Divine for those 40 years affected how the Jew is to think and behave; it elevated his daily being to a metaphysical existence for perpetuity.

The historical core of Sukkot redefined Jewish life and taught the Jew to pursue a metaphysical existence and consciousness while living in the physical world.

This concept of a metaphysical existence and consciousness surpasses the concept of belief, for belief can be abstract and transcendent; having a metaphysical existence and consciousness, however, means living and breathing each breath with a palpable sense that one’s being and all that transpires are part of a divine mechanism, with God supervising and guiding throughout.

It also means that the eternal values of the Torah are not merely ideals and rules, but that they are part of all actuality and events.

By returning to the sukkah every year, we reconnect with the acute experience and vision of living in the veil of the Shechinah, Divine Presence, and we carry this experience and vision with us throughout the year. This is the historical and permanent message and impact of Sukkot.

We can now better understand the relationship of the Arba’ah Minim, the Four Species, to Sukkot. At first glance, the mitzvah of the Arba’ah Minim would appear to be uncorrelated with the theme of Sukkot. Unlike Pesach, in which the mitzvot of the day (Korban Pesach/the Passover Sacrifice, Matzah, Marror/Bitter Herbs, and Sippur Yetzi’at Mitzrayim/Relating the Story of the Exodus) center around the unified theme of liberation from bondage, and unlike Yom Kippur, whose mitzvot (Avodat Yom Ha-Kippurim/the Temple Service for Expiation, and Inuy/Afflicting Oneself-Fasting) center around the unified theme of atonement, the mitzvot of Sukkot do not seem to have a thematic connection.

The Arba’ah Minim would appear to have nothing to do with God’s providential sheltering of Children of Israel during the 40-year sojourn in the Desert. This requires some explanation.

The truth is that the mitzvah of the Arba’ah Minim has everything to do with the message of Sukkot as elucidated above. Let’s take a closer look.

The Talmud (Sukkah 37b) addresses the symbolism of waving the Arba’ah Minim. Rabbi Yochanan explains that, "One moves (the Four Species) back and forth for the sake of Him to Whom the four winds belong; one lifts and lowers (them) for the sake of Him to Whom are the heavens and the earth." Others quote Rabbi Chama bar Ukva in the name of Rabbi Yose bar Rabbi Chanina as explaining that, "One brings (the Four Species in supplication) back and forth to prevent bad winds; one lifts and lowers (them in supplication) to prevent bad precipitation." (V. Rashi ibid.)

On Sukkot, the Arba’ah Minim, which are inanimate vegetation, are engaged to commune with God and are metaphysically animated to an awareness of His immanent Presence. Through the Arba’ah Minim, we declare that physical, mundane nature is part of the divine, metaphysical manifestation of existence. This is particularly so as exhibited by the special Biblical command to wave the Arba’ah Minim in the Beit Ha-Mikdash, where daily, continual miracles occur, in perpetuation of the open and constant miracles of the Desert. We relate those miracles to the Arba’ah Minim and declare that they, and all the natural universe, are enveloped in God’s Presence and betray His Providence.

May we internalize the message of Sukkot as our consciousness is forever elevated and etched with the immanent reality of the Shechinah and God’s Torah.