By: Rabbi Barak Bar-Chaim
The Talmud quotes two reasons for the Mitzvah of dwelling in a Sukkah. One opinion is that the Sukkah reminds us of the temporary huts built by the Jewish People in the desert. The other opinion is that during their travels in the desert, the Jewish people were surrounded by seven protective clouds of glory. These clouds protected the Jewish People from the difficult desert conditions. It seems, therefore, that Sukkot is celebrated at the wrong time of year! The Jewish people left Egypt at the time of Pesach, in the Jewish month of Nissan. Surely, the temporary huts or clouds of glory, which protected them immediately, should be commemorated in Nissan. Why do we wait six months to celebrate Sukkot in the month of Tishrei?
Rabbi Yaakov Ben Asher (Tur) answers that Passover is celebrated in Nissan, which is spring time. Naturally, in the spring, people tend to leave the warmth of their homes and spend more time outdoors. If Sukkot would be celebrated in the spring, it would be less noticeable that people are leaving their homes for the Sukkah in order to fulfill the Mitzvah of dwelling in the Sukkah. Therefore, the Torah placed Sukkot in autumn so that it would be obvious to all that people were leaving their permanent homes to dwell in the Sukkah for the sake of fulfilling the Mitzvah of Sukkah.
The Vilna Gaon has a beautiful, ingenious explanation: Our tradition teaches us that when the Jewish People sinned with the golden calf, God removed the protective clouds of glory. This symbolized the divine presence distancing itself from the Jewish People. This began a repentance process which culminated on Yom Kippur when God told Moses, ‘I have forgiven’ and culminated in God giving Moses the second set of tablets containing the Ten Commandments. Yom Kippur is celebrated on the 10th day of Tishrei. The following day, the 11th day of Tishrei, Moses gathered the people and instructed them to bring materials for the construction of the Mishkan (Tabernacle – Portable Temple). They did this for two days as is indicated by the double language ‘In the morning, in the morning (Exodus 36:3).’ So they gathered materials on the 12th and 13th days of Tishrei. On the 14th of Tishrei, the raw materials were counted and divided up among the various artisans. Finally, on the 15th day of Tishrei, construction began and the clouds of glory returned. Amazingly, the 15th day of Tishrei is the day that the Torah commands us to observe Sukkot.
Sukkot does not celebrate the original protective clouds of glory, rather, it celebrates the return of the clouds of glory. On Sukkot, we celebrate not our initial relationship with God, but the reparation of our relationship with God. We are overjoyed that we can again feel close to God and enjoy His protection. Thus, we refer to Sukkot as our time of joy. Therefore, it makes sense that Sukkot follows Yom Kippur. We celebrate confidently, knowing that we have repaired our relationship with the Divine.