Three important events in the Jewish calendar occur during this time of year. The first is the holiday of Sukkos which began late last week and stretches into Shemini Atzeres and Simchas Torah by the time this one ends. The second is Yom Kippur which preceded Sukkos by only a few days and the third is the renewal of the reading of the Torah this Shabbos with the first parashah in it, Bereishis.
At a glance, it would appear that these three events have little to do with one another. Thematically, Yom Kippur and Sukkos seem to be completely different. The former is the holy Day of Atonement, the climatic end to the Ten Days of Repentance and our chance to stand before God and cleanse our souls of the filth we have contaminated it with over the preceding year. The latter is a holiday that celebrates both the harvest in our Land and commemorates the Yetzias Mitzraim by reminding us that our ancestors left Egypt to dwell in tents, not condominiums after God liberates them from slavery.
In addition, the first part of the Torah has only a limited connection with this time of year. One opinion in the Talmud tells us that the creation of the world was completed on the first day of Tishrei so there is a connection between Rosh HaShanah and Simchas Torah but then one must take into account the three weeks difference between the two holidays. Should they not be spontaneous?
In his commentary on Bereishis, Rav Shimshon Rafael Hirsch, ztk”l, finds the elements of a connection to all these holidays that one can use to see why they all happen together at this time of the year. He starts by noting one of the main philosophies of his commentary: Man was initially created with the intent of building a society based on the knowledge of God and his Torah, His will for the world he formed. Due to the downfall of the generations this society was never built. The first attempt was swept away with the Flood that left only Noah and his sons as survivors. The second attempt was effectively ended with the building of the Tower of Bavel and the subsequent dispersion of Man.
It was only with the arrival of Avraham Avinu on the scene that this trend began to reverse itself. As we learn in Lech Lecha, Avraham and Sarah Imeinu dedicated their life to kiruv, to reaching out to the idolatrous world around them so that knowledge of the one true God could be reborn. This explains why Avraham Avinu was tested ten times by God, as the Mishnah in Avos teaches us. The world, we are told in Avos, was created by ten statements. This world never achieved its potential and therefore Avraham Avinu, through his ten tests, was given a chance to become a new focal point of Creation.
Yet we see in the subsequent chapters of the Torah that this effort also seemed to fizzle out. Yitzchak Avinu spent life in a far more solitary fashion than his father. Far from being a price of God and a powerful local leader, he was driven away from contemporary society and forced to make it on his own. For Yaakov Avinu, things were even harder. At least Yitzchak was able to spend most of his life in peace and in a settled state. Other than the first few decades of his life and the last few, Yaakov was either in exile, traveling or in mourning for Yosef HaTzadik. Once again, the idea of building a society dedicated to God and His goals for Creation seemed lost.
In fact, it was only with the process leading to Yetzias Mitzraim that the trend finally turned. One again we find a familiar number: 10. Avos tells us that ten miracles were performed for our ancestors in Egypt which seems strange as the Torah does not seem to mention any. Some commentators explain that this means that our ancestors being spared from the effects of the Ten Plagues were those ten miracles but that doesn’t make sense if one considers the nature of the Plagues. Each was God’s hand intervening in nature, changing the physical nature of substances or the behaviour of lower creatures. By definition, each Plague was a miracle, albeit a nasty one as far as the Egyptians were concerned. What this explanation would imply is that the ten miracles our ancestors witnessed were simply not being affected by the miracles that were afflicting the Egyptians
But in keeping with our understanding of the importance of the number 10, this statement in Avos becomes much clearer. God created our world with ten statements. He reintroduced Himself into it with ten trials. Now, with ten miracles, it was as if He created the world anew. Our ancestors became the new Adam (one of the nevi’im specifically notes that the B’nai Yisrael are called “Adam”). With ten miraculous statements, God brought forth a world with Adam at its centre, ready with all the potential possible to live according to His will. With ten miraculous plagues, God then brought forth the new Adam, our ancestors, with all the same potential.
One of the most frequently asked questions about Sukkos is its timing. As a harvest festival it makes sense. However, as a festival designated to help us remember Yetzias Mitzraim, it should have come out right after Pesach!
Here’s another curious thought about Sukkos. On one hand, we are told we must live in the sukkah like we live in our homes. On the other hand, we are not allowed to do anything disgusting in the sukkah. We can’t put a port-o-potty in it, or bring dirty pots into it, nor speak foul language within its confines. But if going to the washroom and using dirty utensils are things I normally do in my home, why can’t they be part of my sukkah?
Additionally, one must eat all his meals in the sukkah. Yet if the sukkah is the equivalent of my home, this only makes sense for those meals I eat at home. If I normally eat my lunch at my office, why do I suddenly have to eat it in the sukkah?
Given what we have noted above, the connection of Bereishis and Yom Kippur to Sukkos becomes clearer. There are two opinions in the Talmud about when the world was created, either in Nissan or Tishrei. In reality, there is no conflict between the two. By bringing our ancestors out of Egypt in Nissan with the ten miracles, God effectively created the world anew in Nissan. Nevertheless, there is something further that must be considered if our ancestors were to become the new “Adam”. God not only created Adam, he placed him in a perfect environment, the Garden of Eden. Everything was supplied to him there. His job was to increase his awareness of God and thus his environment was designed to allow him the maximum ability to do that.
Now, consider the environment our ancestors were placed into upon leaving Egypt. There were surrounded by the Ananei HaKavod, divine Clouds of Glory that shielded them from the sun and heat, covered the ground killing off pests and dangers and levelling the ground in front of them to ease their journeys. They were supplied water from a miraculous well and manna felt at the feet every morning. In other words, they were supplied with everything so that nothing would distract them from learning God’s Torah and developing their awareness of Him in their every waking moment. This is completely like what Adam was given!
Remember, though, that Adam only merited the rarefied environment of the Garden of Eden while he was free of sin. Once that state had been sullied, he was sent out to toil in the real world. Therefore we see that God will provide true paradise only to one who is cleansed of all his sins. And at what time of the year can the Jewish people make a claim that they’ve reached that level? Only on Yom Kippur, the day we are told is exactly for that purpose if we return to God with a humble heart and contrite soul.
This, then, is the connection between the three events mentioned at the beginning of this essay. It also answers the questions asked about the strange nature of the sukkah. By surviving Yom Kippur, we become cleansed of our sins and receive a chance to connect with our Father, may He be blessed. To do this, we then build and enter the sukkah. Once inside we spiritually rebuild the environment our forefathers lived in after they left Egypt, a comprehensive one that required no recourse to the outside world. Our ancestors did not need to work for a living because God provided them with everything they needed. Therefore we do not eat or perform other worldly needs outside the sukkah to show that our little booths are just as all-encompassing for us. The sukkah, in turn, is a recreation of the original Garden of Eden, a place only those free of sin could enter. There was nothing ugly or disgusting in it which means that our sukkah must also be free of such things. It is therefore only after Yom Kippur that we could enter the sukkah in the first place and leave the outside world behind so that we can come as close as possible to the original state Man was supposed to be in, as detailed in Bereishis which we read at the end of the holiday.
May the Sukkos holiday season be one of peace and satisfaction for you and yours and may we merit to see a year filled with (positive) miracles and wonders for our People.