The Mitzvah of the Sukkah

[A free translation of a lecture delivered 13 Tishrei 5727 (1966), printed in Pirkei Emunah pp. 80-81] by Rabbi Rabbi Israel Schneider. Rabbi Schneider studied in Telshe Yeshiva for about 20 years. In that period of time, he was privileged to hear shiurim from Rav Mordechai Gifter, zt"l. He is a researcher at Ofeq Institute under the directorship of Rabbi Avraham Shoshana--an institute which is dedicated to editing and disseminating the lost works of the Rishonim (medieval masters). Rabbi Schneider served as a writer/translator for the Mesorah Heritage Foundation (ArtScroll) for fifteen years, where he worked on translations of various tractates of the Babylonian Talmud, portions of several volumes of Midrash Rabbah, and assorted passages of the Ramban's Commentary on the Torah.

     It is well known that the Israelites during their forty-year sojourn in the Desert were the beneficiaries of three ongoing miracles: the manna, the Well of Miriam, and the Clouds of Glory. The manna descended in the merit of Moses, the Clouds of Glory were on account of Aaron, and the Well of Miriam, as its name indicates, existed in the merit of Miriam. The Mabit (acronym for Moshe ben Yosef Trani), in his classic work Beis Elokim (Gate of Foundations Chap. 37, p. 202) asks: Why is it that the Torah established the Mitzvah of dwelling in the Sukkah to commemorate the miracle of the Divine Clouds of Glory, but did not establish a Mitzvah to commemorate the other miraculous accommodations which were Divinely arranged for the Generation of the Wilderness, i.e. the Well of Miriam or the falling of the manna? Let us present a slightly expanded version of his approach in dealing with this question.
      Bread and water are the essential needs of man; without them, it would be impossible for him to maintain his existence upon Earth. Hashem, in His Munificence, provided these needs to the Jewish Nation miraculously by means of the manna and the Well, in the merit of Moshe and Miriam respectively. The protection of the Clouds of Glory (in the merit of Aharon), however was of another magnitude. Although shelter is certainly desirable, it is not absolutely critical for man’s survival. The Clouds of Glory, then, were an expression of the essence of HaShem’s benevolence, which does not merely react to the needs of others, but instead works proactively to benefit others. HaShem’s kindness in this area, then, paralleled the kindness of Aharon, who “loved peace and pursued peace” even in such areas where, were he not to have done so, man’s life and earthly existence would not have been inhibited or imperiled. This type of Chessed was not rooted in the concept of filling the needs of a beneficiary and providing for him that which he lacks, but instead, flowed from a Benefactor seeking to actualize His innate kindness and  goodness. Indeed, in “legal” terms this is a Chessed which is beyond the letter of the law. It is precisely this type of Chessed, then, which merited being  commemorated by a Mitzvah, for it signified the dearness of the Jewish Nation to HaShem, for it is to them that His infinite loving kindness flows abundantly. The Torah established this mitzvah, then, to arouse within us the recognition of the dearness of the Jewish Nation to HaShem, and to implant within us the attribute of Chessed in its truest and purest form. Based on the above, we have a new understanding of the concept of Hashem’s kindness, which does not require an external trigger to stimulate it, but rather flows spontaneously, all the while seeking an opportunity for it to take effect.
     My son-in-law, Rabbi Avraham Chaim Feuer, pointed out cogently that this is the message of the Midrash which states that the Children of Israel merited the Clouds of Glory in the merit of the Patriarch Avraham, who stood over his guests while hosting them. After Avraham had already provided for all the material needs of his guests, the fact that he stood in attendance before them was an expression of his own benevolence, and not because he was servicing them with something that they required. Thus, in a measure-for-a-measure response, G-d surrounded the Generation of the Wilderness with Clouds of Glory, not because it was something that they required, but because it was an expression of HaShem’s innate Benevolence.
     The Torah states: "In order that your generations should know (yeidu) that I caused the Children of Israel to dwell in booths when I took them from the land of Egypt" (VaYikra 23:43). The verb yada (to know) does not refer to mere knowledge, but denotes the most intimate of knowledge, as in (Bereishis 4:1): "Now the man had known (yada) his wife Eve, and she conceived etc." Thus, by dwelling in the sukkah, we are bidden to know most intimately the fact that HaShem sheltered us in the Wilderness. The Sukkah should bring us to cleave to HaShem’s Mercifulness. And in doing so, we too, as a function of Imatio Dei, will become founts of authentic Chessed.
    Accordingly we have a new insight in a halachic concept found in regard to sukkah, and not any other mitzvah-object. The Gemara (Sukkah 9b) states that the wood of the sukkah is prohibited for benefit for the duration of the entire Yom Tov because “The name of G-d is attached to the Sukkah”. This holds true only for a sukkah; it does not apply to a shofar, to tzitzis, or to other objects of Mitzvah. What is the reason for the Sukkah’s anomalous property?
    It is axiomatic that a true understanding of the nature of HaShem is beyond the grasp of human understanding and imagination. Our sole comprehension of the Divine is limited to the manner in which He relates to the world, and how He conducts worldly affairs. These interactions with the world are governed by the Thirteen Attributes of Mercy. It follows then that each of these Merciful Attributes, is, in a manner of speaking, one of G-d’s names for although they don’t reflect the (unfathomable) nature of G-d, they accurately depict whatever we could humanly know of G-d, i.e. His involvement with worldly affairs. Since, as explained previously, the goal of the commandment to dwell in the sukkah is to bring us closer to an understanding of HaShem’s Mercy and Compassion, then, in a very real sense, we can say that “HaShem’s name is upon the Sukkah”, for HaShem’s Name is rooted in the Attribute of Mercy. May we merit to perform the Mitzvah of Sukkah in such a manner that we become intimately familiar with it and the concepts it represents, so that our personalities become refined, and that we emulate HaShem, in some small degree, in the way which we compassionately practice Chessed.