What is the joy of Sukkos all about?
When B’nei Yisrael traveled in the desert, Hashem provided three special miracles to take care of their needs: Delicious manna rained down from heaven, fresh water flowed from Miriam’s well, and ananei ha’kavod (clouds of glory) enveloped the people (Taanis 9a).
At first glance, it would seem that the first two miracles were the most important; without food and water, we never could have survived in the wilderness for 40 years! And yet, there is no holiday commemorating these critical wonders.
By contrast, the miracle of the clouds doesn’t seem to have been even necessary at all. The people likely could have survived the elements living inside their booths (aka “sukkos”). In fact, Chazal say that the true benefit of the clouds was not their protection, but the comfort they provided: The clouds kept the roads smooth, our clothes fresh, and our feet blister-free (See Rashi to BaMidbar 10:34 and D’varim 8:4). And it is for this “spa treatment” that an entire holiday – Sukkos – was created, to remember the great kindness of Hashem during those years (Sukkah 11b).
Doesn’t that seem a little backward? Shouldn’t we thank Hashem more for the essentials than for the luxuries?
The Mabit (Rabbi Moshe ben Yosef Trani zt”l, d. 1585) provides a beautiful answer in his classic work, Beis Elokim (Shaar HaY’sodos, chapter 37). He writes that, in a sense, Hashem “had to” provide us with sustenance in the desert. After all, He had taken us out of Egypt, and into the middle of nowhere, for what would end up being a very, very long journey. Of course He had to provide us with food and water: It would have been cruel to not provide us with those basic necessities!
However, the clouds of glory were, as pointed out, completely unnecessary; Hashem didn’t “have to” pamper us with five-star accommodations. And by doing so anyway, Hashem demonstrated not only His responsibility and obligation to the Jewish people, but His deep love for us.
Every relationship is built on the expectation of reciprocity. Employees complete assigned tasks; employers submit paychecks. Children do chores and follow house rules; parents provide a roof and stock the fridge. Spouses divide up financial, familial, and household duties. These are the foundations of every long-term interaction. What elevates a connection from a mere partnership to a meaningful relationship is the exchange of special favors and acts of thoughtfulness. To consider the comfort and happiness of another – that is the sign of true caring. This, too, must be reciprocal in order for the relationship to continue and thrive.
Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur represent our sense of obligation toward Hashem. We recognize His power, and “have to” attend services and mend our ways because we need to be granted another year of life. We must observe these holidays, because they are essential to our survival.
Sukkos is our chance to go above and beyond. We are already confident that we davened well and secured our bare necessities for the coming year, but we desire to deepen the relationship. This holiday is not out of a forced sense of awe, but one of simchah! We remember how Hashem lovingly provided us with more than the basic requirements, and we reciprocate by celebrating with joy and enthusiasm.
If it seems over-the-top to make an entire holiday out of the ananei ha’kavod, then it is because we are responding in kind to Hashem Who sent us those clouds to shower us with over-the-top affection!