As an initial step in pulling man out of his torpor of alienation from the divine, G-d extends to him an intellectual awareness of His presence; His "hand" prompts the sinner to acknowledge G-d. Ideally, man will internalize the message and integrate it into his emotional make-up. This change is significant: Before, he had understood that G-d makes demands of him, but now he will feel the urgency of these demands. As the Talmud describes it, the apathy that encrusts his heart has been pierced – perhaps with only a "pin-prick" of regret and concern; but his heart is no longer insulated from his intellectual musings.
In response to man's initial step, G-d widens the tiny aperture in his heart to the dimensions of "an opening of a great hall," and his commitment becomes intensified further. His "right hand" draws the penitent Jew close to Him. First, G-d's hand shakes the indifferent Jew out of his slumbering indifference… ultimately embracing him fully and his knowledge becomes part of his personality…
Every evening (in the Hashkiveinu prayer), we implore G-d to "spread over us (His) sukkah of peace… and grant us good counsel."
The soundest advice G-d can grant us is to prompt us to take note of our place on earth, our assigned role in life – and somehow, it seems, this is best conveyed to us from within the sukkah. How does the sukkah accomplish this?
On Sukkos man is instructed: "Leave your permanent home and take shelter in your temporary dwelling." Living in a sukkah is an instruction in the transitory nature of all of life's mundane experiences – a negation of the material (bitul ha'yesh). For when the Jew in the sukkah ponders life in his thrown-together hut, he realizes that nothing is of permanence in this world. The joys and comforts of the home are inaccessible. And even the modest creature comforts of the sukkah are only of short duration.
And such is the life itself: Striving for material possessions, for fulfillment of passions, desires, and petty pleasures becomes revealed as a hollow pursuit. Designs to secure a place for oneself and for future generations are mere fantasy; after all, whatever gains are realized are of little duration and of no intrinsic value. Position? Power? Possessions? They are all of no substance. If man is to strive for anything of worth, it must be for spiritual attainment, because only in the realm of the spirit do gains have any permanence. Only a spiritual existence can give a man authentic pleasure and lasting satisfaction… This is the lesson of the sukkah.
The Sukkah Test
The Talmud foretells that in the end of days, when it becomes obvious that only the Torah way of life is of value, many strangers will clamor for a place among the People of the Torah. "Had You but given us Torah and Mitzvos," they will argue, "we too would have kept them. Why should we be deprived of a place amidst the Torah Nation?"
G-d will offer them the mitzvah of sukkah, which they will readily accept. But then the sun will burn hot and the pretenders will abandon the discomfort of the sukkah, hastily slamming the door behind them (Avodah Zarah 3a). Of all the 613 mitzvos, why will the mitzvah of sukkah be selected to test their loyalty to G-d and His commandments?
In truth, the lessons implicit in the sukkah are central to a Torah life. On the surface they appear to be within everyone's grasp. Who can pretend that fleeting sensual pleasures and makeshift material security endow a life with meaning or purpose? And since it is so, what does one lose by demonstrating this conviction by moving into a sukkah?
But the actual test of commitment can be much more taxing than simply voicing agreement in principle, for it involves exposure to discomfort and, at times, even pain. The person who has truly negated the material aspects of existence can successfully withstand these challenges. But he who merely voices verbal acquiescence cannot; his move to the sukkah will culminate in a hasty escape, slamming the door behind him…
Once one has fully absorbed the sukkah's message of negation of the material, he can come to perceive with an unrivaled clarity that the world is G-d's – His demands assume new dimensions of meaning and throb with even greater immediacy. The sukkah, then, can rightfully be described as tzilusa de'mehimenusa, the protective shade of faith. Beneath its sheltering roof, the blinding attractions of falsehood disappear. In its shelter, the Jew becomes liberated from the shackles of conventional thought and dares aspire for more, reaching for greater spiritual growth. He becomes the "free man, committed to Torah" (Avos 6:3), governed by an inner peace, spreading light through all his actions.
Sukkah, Galus and Unity
"Why do we build a sukkah after Yom Kippur? …Perhaps on Yom Kippur it will be decreed upon Israel to go into exile… They will build sukkos and enter them, leaving their homes behind – and it will be considered before G-d as though they were exiled to Babylonia" (Yalkut, Emor 653).
To know G-d is to be aware of His all-pervasive unity. To be estranged from Him – to become enmeshed in idolatry – is to splinter the various aspects of His presence, His numerous acts and deeds, into separate components and give them each a credence of their own. Doing so can bring a decree of galus (exile) on Jewry.
To love one's fellow is to identify with him and experience a sense of unity with him, to share his aspirations and to feel the pinch of his needs. Self-centeredness and the urge to enhance one's own material status give way to distance, cleavage and rivalry. This estrangement between Jews and their fellows can also earn a punishment of galus. Indeed, the Talmud records that the Jews suffered galus 1900 years ago because of unjustified hatred, sinas chinam…
The punishment (of) galus also has the makings of a cure. For in man's incessant wandering, material gains are short-lived, and one who takes the galus experience to heart loses taste for further acquisition. Focus shifts to spiritual realms and the galus lesson sinks in even deeper.
The result? The wandering Jew feels closer to his fellow.
The Jew in the sukkah who comprehends the message of his temporary dwelling, who internalizes its implications of, a negation of the material bitul ha'yesh, can experience a flow of love toward his brother unbroken by the barriers of materialism that may have prevented him from even being aware of others. Close to home as he is, he reaps the benefits of enduring a full-fledged galus…
Jew and Four Species
Another mitzvah associated with the Sukkos festivals is the "four species" – the lulav, esrog, myrtle, willow – that the Jew is enjoined to bind together, hold in his hand and wave. A well known (Midrashic exposition) associates each of these species with a different type of Jew, building on the characteristics of fragrance and flavor that each has or lacks in varying combinations. These, we are told, symbolize the nature and degree of observance and scholarship present among different types of Jews.
Thus G-d says, "…let them form one group, and these will bring forgiveness on those." Through their concern and sense of association with others, those endowed with Torah (flavor) and good deeds (fragrance) will lend merit to those who are lacking in both. And the spiritually poor, in turn, will bring merit to the more virtuous by serving as a medium for their mentors' concern. As a result, they too are of vital importance to their more enriched brethren.
Thus, when Sukkos comes, and all segments of Jewry are bound together, like the four species, they will achieve a unity that overcomes all barriers of time, place, and self-centeredness, enhancing the entire community's standing before G-d. And the sukkah's message will have made its point.