Sukkot: Celebrating the Clouds of Glory
The Torah commands us to reside in Sukkot during this holiday in order to remember "that I had Beneh Yisrael reside in Sukkot when I took them from Egypt."
The Gemara (Sukka 11) cites a debate among the Tanna’im in explaining what exactly the Sukka commemorates. According to one view, the Torah refers here to the actual huts, the temporary dwellings in which Beneh Yisrael lived during their sojourn through the wilderness. According to the other view, however, the Sukka commemorates the miraculous "Ananeh Ha’kabod" – "clouds of glory" – which encircled Beneh Yisrael in the desert to protect them from the elements. This second explanation is followed by both Targum Onkelos and Rashi in their interpretations of this verse, and is accepted also by the Shulhan Aruch (Orah Haim 625). The Shulhan Aruch mentions this understanding because, as later writers explain, when we sit in the Sukka we must have in mind that we do so to commemorate the clouds of glory.
Among the questions that have been asked concerning this commemoration is, why is only this miracle commemorated by a special Yom Tob? Other miracles also occurred for Beneh Yisrael in the desert. What is special about this miracle that we observe a special seven-day holiday to celebrate it?
The Gaon of Vilna (Rav Eliyahu of Vilna, 1720-1797) advanced a famous theory to explain the significance of the Misva of Sukka. He writes that when Beneh Yisrael worshipped the golden calf, part of their punishment was the removal of the miraculous clouds. Our Sages tell us that it was on Yom Kippur, nearly three months after the golden calf, that Hashem announced to Moshe His forgiveness for this grievous sin. And the next day, Moshe assembled the people and conveyed to them Hashem’s command to construct the Mishkan. The Gaon explained that the people donated materials for the Mishkan over the course of the next several days, and the construction began on the 15th of Tishri – the first day of Sukkot. On that day, the Gaon writes, the clouds of glory returned. And this is what we celebrate on Sukkot – the return of the "Ananeh Ha’kabod" after they had been taken away in response to the sin of the golden calf.
The Gaon answered on this basis the famous question of why Sukkot is celebrated in the middle of the Tishri. If this holiday celebrates the miraculous clouds of glory, then it should be celebrated in the spring, shortly after Pesach, when Beneh Yisrael first entered the wilderness and required this supernatural protection. The Gaon explained that Sukkot celebrates the return of the clouds after the sin of the golden calf, which occurred on the 15th of Tishri, and so it is celebrated then.
This theory also answers other questions. For example, it explains why women are exempt from the Misva of Sukka. Normally, although women are exempt from Misvot that apply only at certain times, they are obligated in Misvot which commemorate a miracle in which they were included. Quite obviously, the women of Beneh Yisrael benefitted from the clouds of glory no less than the men. And yet, they are exempt from this obligation. According to the Gaon of Vilna’s approach, the reason becomes clear. The women did not participate in the sin of the golden calf. They remained loyal to Hashem and refused to donate any gold for this sinful endeavor. Therefore, they are not included in the Misva of Sukka, which commemorates the final rectification of the sin of the golden calf.
On Yom Kippur, Hashem announced His forgiveness, which meant that He would not punish Beneh Yisrael. On Sukkot, however, we celebrate the fact that Hashem not only forgave us, but fully restored His relationship with us. We did not only escape punishment, but were worthy of His special love, signified by the clouds of glory. This is what makes Sukkot such an especially joyous occasion. It celebrates the fact that although we are imperfect, and sometimes make mistakes, nevertheless, if we sincerely repent and strive to improve, Hashem continues to shower us with His love and His special blessing. Through the process of Teshuba, we are able to earn not only forgiveness – but Hashem’s continued love and affection.