Sukkot always seems to arrive unexpectedly. We spend weeks preparing for Passover. The High Holidays have an entire preliminary month enabling us to review our past deeds and make resolutions for the future. Chanukah and Purim are much-awaited oases during the long winter months.
But Sukkot offers us no such luxury. It follows only days after Yom Kippur. Hardly recovered from the fast, we immediately find ourselves in a whirlwind of activity – building the Sukkah, shopping for the Four Species, cooking, cleaning, decorating, etc. We are given virtually no time to mentally prepare ourselves for the transition. We spend an exhausted few days in preparation, and then suddenly it begins.
Many Jewish thinkers have wondered why Sukkot is placed where it is on the Jewish calendar. As the Torah attests, it commemorates the “booths” – or Clouds of Glory – with which God sheltered us in the desert for 40 years (Leviticus 23:43). But if so, why now? We dwelled under the Clouds day and night for a full 40 years. Why must we commemorate them this one time of year, so shortly after Yom Kippur?
As we read in Genesis 30, our foremother Rachel was blessed with a child only after many years of marriage – only after years of sadness, emptiness and prayer. When her son is at last born, she names him Joseph. Why Joseph? Rachel explains, “May God add (‘yosaif’) for me another son” (v. 24). She was blessed with one son and fervently prayed that God grant her another.
Shouldn’t Rachel express her thankfulness and enjoy the gift God did grant her?
Rachel’s request always struck me. The day she was blessed with one child she immediately begins asking for the next. Shouldn’t she have a little gratitude for what she was given? Say ‘thank you’! Her sister and co-wife Leah is praised by the Talmud for naming her fourth child Judah because, as she explains, “This time I will thank God” (29:35; Brachot 7b). You get a gift from God as precious as a child, you should be overwhelmed with gratitude! If Rachel is really still so worried about her fertility problems, so in one year, two years she can start praying again! But for now, shouldn’t she simply express her thankfulness and enjoy the gift God did grant her?
I believe the answer is as follows. Rachel was brought enormously close to God on account of her difficulties. She screamed, she cried, she prayed. She even evoked her husband Jacob’s anger over her persistence (30:1-2). And she had one message to God when her wishes finally come true: “I’m not letting go of You.” You brought me close to You, You made me beg, You made me cry, You made me tear into myself, understand my needs and cleave to You as I never before did. And I’m not letting go. I’m going to keep on praying to You as if nothing happened, keep on asking for that child I wanted so dearly. I had never been so close to You as when I was wanting. And regardless of whatever has changed in my life, I don’t want to lose that connection.
But there was a difference. Rachel could feel close and connected to God but not through suffering and misery. We all know that ironically, we feel closest to God during the most difficult times in our lives, when we know in our hearts God is talking to us and rousing us to improve. Rachel recognized this, but she wanted to take those same feelings, that same intensity, and hold on to it. She didn’t want her gratitude to be her parting gift to God. “Thanks for the blessings. Now I’ll forget about You and lose myself in my own busy little world.” Every bit as much as God was a part of Rachel’s life during her hard times, she wanted Him to be with her during the good.
The core message of Sukkot is: “God, we want to stay with You.”
This can explain the progression from the High Holidays to Sukkot. On Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur we feel an intense closeness to God, but in a very solemn, almost intimidating sense. We know that we have failed Him, that we weren’t as good as we should have been this past year. We fast, we spend the day in the synagogue praying, and we beg for forgiveness and a better year to come. And in all the tears and denial, we feel enormously close to the God we must turn to so desperately.
Sukkot, at its core, carries one message: “God, we want to stay with You.” We do not leave Yom Kippur with a sense of relief – we suffered, we fasted, and now we can rest easy. We’ve cleaned our slates; now we can go back to our usual stupor and forget the whole darn thing. Instead, we take all of that closeness – that fear – and transform it into love. We trust You have forgiven us and granted us another chance. And we want to hold on to that sense of closeness – not in the frightening sense of Judgment Day, but in the warm sense of dwelling in God’s abode.
Just as God’s Clouds of Glory embraced and protected us for 40 years in the desert, so too we want to take that intimate sense of closeness brought about by our fear of God’s justice and use it to truly become close to Him. The fear is over; the judgment has passed. Now we just want to be with God. And we’re not letting go.