10/01/2012 10:20 am ET Updated Dec 01, 2012

Two Sukkot Mysteries Solved With Love

Sukkot is a puzzling holiday. Just days after Yom Kippur we suddenly take to living in thatched huts. The usual explanation is that the holiday recalls the wandering of the Jews in the desert, and the sukkah represents either the booths that the Jews dwelt in as they traveled or the cloud covering that God provided for the wandering children of Israel.

But this poses two intriguing questions. If Sukkot commemorates the wandering in the desert, why do we celebrate it now? The time of wandering was not the Hebrew month of Tishrei, when Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur occur. Sukkot should properly be set after Passover, when the Jews began their wandering. First liberation, then wandering. Exile followed Egypt, not the creation of the world as celebrated on Rosh Hashanah.

To add to the confusion, why have a holiday celebrating the cloud covering of the desert? The Talmudic sages enumerate three great miracles in the desert. First was the manna, which fed the wandering Israelites. Miriam's well provided water. And there was the covering of clouds that offered shade.

Why of all three miracles does only the cloud covering deserve a holiday? Surely it is a greater miracle to provide a people with the miraculous food of manna than to throw some cumulus shade over them? Yet there is no Jewish festival of the manna or the water, only Sukkot remembering the clouds.

The Steipler Gaon provides an answer to the second question that may serve as an answer to the first as well He says that the manna and the water were necessary; without them Israel could not survive. But the cloud covering was an act of love. After all a mother who feeds her child does so because she must; not to do so would be simply cruel. But she swaddles him in soft blankets not because the child must have them to live, but because she loves him. The manna and the water were necessities; the cloud covering was a sign of deep devotion.

Festivals -- the liberation of Pesach, the gift of Torah on Shavuot -- are tokens of God's love.
The timing of Sukkot may be for the same reason. On Yom Kippur we continually speak of life and death and are filled with anxiety for the coming year. Even though the shofar is sounded at the end of the day, anxiety does not so quickly disappear. The parent who is waiting for a child to come home is filled with anxiety. When the child walks in the door there is relief but also a residual anxiety - we check her room, listen still for his footsteps on the floor. It takes time to be reassured that everything is alright.

Sukkot comes after Yom Kippur as a reinforcement of God's care. We dwell is fragile booths because we are secure. Only someone who feels safe chooses a rickety dwelling. The reality of God's love is made manifest by remembering our time in the desert and knowing that throughout the testing time of Yom Kippur, the closeness of God and Israel is undiminished. A law of the sukkah is that through the roof one must be able to see the stars. These bright emblems of eternity are reminders that the holiday signifies something greater than ourselves and comforts us.

A ring must be offered under the Chuppah because a gift is a mark of love. Sustenance alone is not enough; love finds its expression in offering more than the beloved requires. After a time of strain there must be a period of reconciling affection and embrace. Love is lavish; no parent is satisfied to give a child only what she needs. Love overspills boundaries, whether spreading a blanket on a sleeping child or covering the desert with clouds. Sukkot is called "Hahag" -- the festival, for Sukkot is a time to remember and renew love.

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