The lulav and etrog are weapons of war and the fact that we hold them shows us to be the victors. But in what contest? And how are these plants to be viewed as weapons?

"But on the fifteenth day of the seventh month, when you gather in the crop of the land, you shall celebrate God's festival for a seven day period ... You shall take for yourselves on the first day the fruit of a citron tree, the branches of date palms, twigs of a plaited tree, and brook willows; and you shall rejoice before the Lord, your God, for a seven day period." (Leviticus 23: 39-40)

The rejoicing of Sukkot is thus associated by the Torah with the commandment of taking the four species. This association has been explored extensively by the commentators using many different approaches. This is what one Midrash has to say about it:

This commandment is a parable that describes two people who contend in a legal battle before the King. Although the two people were not informed in whose favor the judgment was issued, they can figure it out by looking to see who walks out still holding his weapons. Thus Israel along with the nations of the world face the Divine judgment on the Day of Atonement. We cannot tell which one emerged victorious, which is why God commanded You shall take for yourselves ... You can see from the fact that Israel emerges from before God holding its palm leaves and citrons, its lulav and etrog, that Israel emerged victorious. (Midrash Rabba, Vayikra 30:3)

Apparently, the lulav and etrog are weapons of war that the vanquished would need to surrender; the fact that we hold them shows us to be the victors. But in what contest? How are these plants to be viewed as weapons? What is the association between facing judgment on the Day of Atonement and this victory? What is the true connection between the Day of Atonement and the joy of Sukkot?

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Let us begin with considering the last topic first, the connection between Yom Kippur and Sukkot.

The Gaon of Vilna (Shir Hashirim, 1,2) asks a key question after analyzing the series of events:

The major commandment associated with the Sukkot holiday is the commandment to sit in the sukkah that bequeaths the holiday its name. About this commandment the Torah writes, "So that your generations will know that I caused the Children of Israel to dwell in booths when I took them from the land of Egypt" (Ibid. 43). The Talmud tells us that these booths were the "clouds of glory," (Sukka 11b) which symbolized the Divine presence that surrounded the Jewish encampment in the desert and sheltered it from the harsh weather conditions of the environment, provided protection from all enemies, and transported those who were too weak to face the rigors of travel.

This powerful demonstration of God's concern and affection for our welfare is described elsewhere by the Torah, "He was like an eagle arousing its nest, hovering over its young, spreading its wings and taking them, carrying them on its pinions" (Deut. 32:11). For a human being to be awarded with such a manifest demonstration of Divine concern is the greatest possible glory, hence the expression "clouds of glory."

But these clouds were provided at the time of the Exodus an event that we celebrate on Passover. Why then do we wait to celebrate their presence for a full six months?

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The Gaon answers:

We celebrate their return rather than their original appearance.

When Israel worshipped the Golden Calf the "clouds of glory" departed. After the nation repented, Moses went up Mount Sinai a second time and returned with a second set of tablets of the Ten Commandments on Yom Kippur. He then delivered the commandment to build the sanctuary to house the tablets on the next day, the eleventh of Tishrei. On the twelfth and thirteenth the people of "generous heart" brought the donations of the materials. On the fourteenth the materials were distributed to the "wise of heart." On the fifteenth they started working and it was on that day that the "clouds of glory" returned, and this is the day we celebrate as the first day of Sukkot.

The conclusion of the Gaon: We celebrate the "clouds of glory" that were returned to us through the power of our repentance. The bonds of love between Israel and God were strong enough to overcome His major disappointment in our having betrayed His trust with the Golden Calf. Not only did He give us the second set of tablets but we were fully restored to His affections as demonstrated by the return of the "clouds of glory."

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The joy of Sukkot is the joy of reconciliation. It flows directly from repentance and atonement. In fact Rabbeinu Yona in his work Sha'arei Teshuva points out that this joy is an integral part of repentance. There are two ways to repent:

  1. Out of fear. The sinner comes to his senses and realizes that he will have to face the consequences of his shortcomings. He tries desperately to get out of having to "face the music" by repenting his sins. There is not necessarily any joy involved in the accomplishment of such repentance. It was not his sins themselves that upset such a penitent, it was their anticipated consequences. He may sincerely regret having committed his sins, but he would be even happier if he could have his cake and eat it too. If he could be shown how to sin with impunity he would gladly do so.

  2. Out of love. The sinner is upset more by the fact that he lost his close connection with God through his sins than he is by the thought of the punishment. The loss of God's love and trust is the greatest possible punishment in his eyes. His repentance is an attempt to be restored to God's favor so that he might feel the power of God's love once again. When such repentance is accepted it is the cause of the greatest joy. Once again the penitent basks in the warmth of God's love. Once again he is God's favored child.

But not only does the joy of repentance alter the very nature and quality of the repentance itself, it also determines what that repentance can accomplish.

Reish Lakish said: Great is the power of repentance for because of it willful transgressions are considered for the penitent as inadvertent errors, as it is written, "Return, O Israel, unto the Lord your God, for you have stumbled in your iniquity." (Hosea 14:2)

Now iniquity (avon in Hebrew) is a willful sin, and yet the verse refers to it as stumbling, which is an inadvertent act.

But Reish Lakish himself has stated: Great is the power of repentance, for because of it willful transgressions are counted for the penitent as merits, as it is written, "And if the wicked man turns away from his wickedness and behaves with justice and righteousness, he shall live on account of them" (Ezekiel 33:19). There is no contradiction here; the second statement refers to repentance done out of love, the first one to repentance done out of fear. (Talmud, Yuma, 86b)

The depth of the Gaon's statement about celebrating the return of the "clouds of glory" rather than their first appearance is to be found in the above passage of the Talmud.

The "clouds of glory" could only return if the sin of the Golden Calf was not only nullified, but transformed into an act that brought Israel and God even closer than they were to each other prior to the commission of the sin. This required the second type of repentance, the repentance of love. The symbol for this type of repentance is the joy of Sukkot; thus the "clouds of glory" returned on Sukkot.

The first thing we do on Yom Kippur right after reading Kol Nidrei, is to publicly say the following verse: "Forgive the entire congregation of the Children of Israel and the stranger amongst them; for the entire people sinned unintentionally." (Numbers 15:26).

Our aim as a congregation on Yom Kippur is to reach the level of repentance out of fear so that all our transgressions can be viewed as unintentional. On Sukkot we aim higher. We aim for repentance out of love to turn our transgressions into merits aided by the joy of Sukkot.

But where does the joy of Sukkot come from?

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When the Temple stood the high point of this joy was the Simchat Beit Hashueva, the celebration of "the drawing of the waters." The Mishna states that it was impossible for someone who has never experienced this celebration to truly appreciate the full power of the experience of joy.

There is an amazing passage in the Mishna that describes this ceremony in detail as it took place near the end of the second Temple era in the days of Hilel. Amid the description we find the following odd statement:

When the celebrants in the [second] Temple reached the eastern gate they turned their faces towards the west (the location of the sanctuary and the Holy of Holies) and said, "Our forefathers when they were in this place [first Temple] turned their backs to the sanctuary and their faces toward the east and bowed to the rising sun in the east; but our eyes are turned to God." (Talmud, Sukka, 51b)

On the face of it, it would appear that we would not be able to come up with something this inappropriate to say even if we put our best minds to work on the problem. Here is Israel, in the midst of celebrating their closeness to God in His Temple, reminding God of their own iniquities and the destruction of His first Temple and thus ruining the whole party. How can we possibly relate to this?

Rabbi Hutner explained the true meaning of this statement and gave us an important key to understanding the joy of Sukkot.

The purpose of life in this world is to struggle with our evil inclination and tame it to do our will. In the entire history of humanity, there is only one such struggle with the evil inclination that was ever concluded - the struggle with the inclination for idol worship. At the time of the establishment of the second Temple the men of the Great Assembly prayed for the removal of this inclination and their prayers were answered.

To us it may appear that this struggle ended in dismal failure, after all the first Temple was destroyed as a consequence of giving in to this evil inclination and committing the sin of idolatry. But this is not how it appears to God. For we struggled with the evil inclination for idol worship for a full 800 years, from the time of our entry into Israel till the destruction of the first Temple.

During these 800 years there were many victories in this struggle. We see only the defeats; after all, the Temple was destroyed. But God saw the seriousness of the struggle, the intensity of effort invested in it, and the many successes along the way. This part of the human story was successfully concluded from His point of view.

Sukkot is the holiday that commemorates the "clouds of glory." The glory of man lies in his struggle with the evil inclination. In any protracted struggle with an indestructible enemy there are bound to be setbacks as well as victories. As long as one soldiers on with determination and bravery until he makes it clear that there is no more point to prolonging the war as there will never be a final victor, he has done extremely well. If he is relatively frail in comparison to his opponent and has managed to fight him to a standstill against great odds, he is truly entitled to glory.

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It is not by coincidence that the same chapter of the Talmud that describes the beauty of the Simchat Beit Hashueva is also the portion of the Talmud that provides the most detailed information about the attributes of the evil inclination. Among other fascinating bits is the following:

At the end of days God will bring the evil inclination and slaughter it before an audience composed of the tzadikim, the "righteous", and the reshaim, the "wicked." The evil inclination will appear as great as a mountain to the tzadikim, and as weak as a fine hair to the reshaim. They will both cry. The tzadikim will cry as they will say, "How could we possibly have succeeded in capturing such a great mountain?" The reshaim will cry as they will say, "How can we have failed against something that is as delicate as a fine hair?"

Rashi explains: The tzadikim will cry because they will remember the anguish they suffered suppressing their evil inclination. The reshaim suffered no such anguish. Without the anguish the evil inclination itself seems no great matter. (Sukka, 52a)

The joy of Sukkot is the other side of the coin of the anguish of Yom Kippur.

On Yom Kippur we focus on the anguish entailed in our never ending battle with the evil inclination, on the many defeats that we inevitably must suffer as we go through life endlessly doing battle with him. But on Sukkot we focus on the glory that accrues to us as a result of the difficulty involved in this very struggle. This glory is the source of the joy felt both by God and by Israel. It is represented by the "clouds of glory" that enveloped us in the desert, and by the "clouds of glory" that envelop the sinner who has engaged in the battle with the evil inclination, who has suffered his defeats and who has been healed of his wounds by his sincere repentance.

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But in what forum does the struggle with the evil inclination take place and what are the weapons that we must have to successfully fight it to a standstill?

A wise man once said, "Show me a man who can admire the beauty of a sunset and I will show you a man who is not hungry."

Sukkot takes place at the time of the harvest. Many people think of it as the Jewish harvest festival. After the anxiety of the planting and the growing, suffering through all the uncertainties that could affect the successful outcome, when you finally have your produce successfully gathered and safely stored in your barn, you can finally turn your mind to enjoying the beauty of what the world has to offer.

The Torah makes the following comment about Israel when it strays:

"Jeshurun became fat and kicked, you became fat, you became thick, you became corpulent; he deserted God his Maker, and was contemptuous of the Rock of his salvation." (Deut. 32:15)

The time of the harvest is when it is the easiest to stray and desert one's Maker. The joy of success and one's full stomach leads one to admire the beauty of the sunset and the many wondrous aspects of being alive. This joy is what distracts man from his battle with the evil inclination and allows him to forget that he is only a temporary resident in this life, and the transitory nature of all his non-spiritual experiences.

But what does Israel do? It looks for nature's most beautiful fruit, the citron, nature's most beautiful leaves and takes these and rejoices with them before God. The joy of the successful harvest is returned immediately to its true source and becomes transformed into the joy and gratitude of enjoying God's favor. Israel leaves its houses and goes to sit in what remains of the "clouds of glory" - the sukkah booth.

Not for us the joy of worldly possessions. We yearn to return to God's cloud, we only want to live within the symbol of His love for us. The lulav and the etrog are indeed our weapons and some day we will carry them proudly with us to the ultimate Simchat Beit Hashueva celebration.