The Torah teaches us that there is a mitzvah to live in the sukkah for the duration of the Yom Tov of Sukkos. Like every other mitzvah, the ultimate reason we perform this act is simply because Hashem commanded us to do so. However, the Torah itself tells us that this mitzvah not only has an expressed goal, but that a certain level of understanding of its purpose is required for its fulfillment. That purpose is “l’maan yeidu doroseichem, ki b’sukkos hoshavti es Bnei Yisrael — so your generations should know that the Jewish people dwelled in sukkos during their sojourn in the Midbar.” It is not enough to build a sukkah and dwell in it; a Jew must create an experience that will project to his descendants that their ancestors sat in sukkos.
Which “sukkos” is the Torah referring to that we are commanded to remember for generations? The Gemara (Maseches Sukkah 11b) tells us that the answer is, in fact, a machlokes. According to Rabi Eliezer, it is a reference to the Ananei Hakavod — the Clouds of Glory — that enveloped Klal Yisrael in the desert and protected them from the blistering sun and enemy attacks, and paved a way for them through the wilderness. Rabi Akiva, however, said that it is a reference to the actual flimsy huts that served as the Jewish People’s dwellings, which had to be dismantled and re-constructed at each step of their wanderings. According to the Ohr Hachaim Hakadosh, they were put up and down a total of 39 times over the 40 years of nomadic existence in the desert.
On the face of it, Rabi Eliezer’s position is very logical. In keeping with the theme of the other Yamim Tovim, Sukkos commemorates the miracles with which Hashem sustained us and built us into His nation.
The Mabit explains that the reason we specifically have a mitzvah to remember them as opposed to the mann or the Be’er Miriam, which were perhaps more essential in sustaining us in the desert, is that the Ananei Hakavod emphasize Hashem’s great love for Klal Yisrael. Hydration and nourishment are basic needs. We could not have physically survived in the Midbar without them. Yet, the Ananei Hakavod were a luxury. Their existence shows that the Ribbono shel Olam deals with the Jewish People on a different plane and created a phenomenon that would allow them to travel with first-class accommodations. According to Rabi Eliezer, it is this bond of love that we remember and re-live each Sukkos.
Rabi Akiva, on the other hand, is more difficult to understand. Why would Hashem make a mitzvah to build and dwell in a sukkah to commemorate hardship? All the more so, why would we do it on a Yom Tov dedicated to simchah? Would we make a festival to commemorate life in the concentration camps or in the gulags for those who survived Siberia? Why commemorate the difficulty of life in makeshift sheds that had to be disassembled whenever our forefathers got too settled in one location?
It would seem that the heart of the dispute between Rabi Eliezer and Rabi Akiva is not only over the mitzvah itself, but rather over the very nature of the Yom Tov of Sukkos. According to Rabi Eliezer, Sukkos fits in perfectly with Pesach and Shavuos. It is a culmination of the gratitude that we express to Hashem for the nissim He performed for us. We relive the experience of the Ananei Hakavod and remind our neshamos what they meant just as we do when we sit at the Seder on Pesach night.
Conversely, Rabi Akiva saw Sukkos as a Yom Tov that brings our avodah of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur to its real-life application, bringing it “min hakoach el hapoel,” from the theoretical to the practical. The Navi recalled that Klal Yisrael followed Hashem in the barren desert without making any more preparations than the matzos they could carry on their shoulders. The sukkos serve as a sign of the tremendous mesirus nefesh that our ancestors had as a result of their recognition of the privilege to be the servants of the Creator. After accepting upon ourselves the malchus of the Ribbono shel Olam, this is the step that helps us bring that concept into our lives.
A member of my kehillah once related to me the following story that he had heard from his father-in-law about how Yidden spent Sukkos in Auschwitz. A group of prisoners had managed to build a small makeshift sukkah right under the noses of the Nazi guards.
On the first night of Yom Tov, a line of Jews waited in pairs to approach the sukkah. One would stand guard while the other would run into the sukkah and eat a k’zayis of moldy bread that each one had saved. This fellow’s father-in-law recalled standing lookout for an emaciated Gerrer Chassid. When his turn came to fulfill the precious mitzvah, he dashed into the little hut like lightning, pulled the s’chach over his head, and cried out from the depths of his heart the brachos: Hamotzi, Leishev Ba’sukkah, and then Shehecheyanu. After swallowing the bread, he exclaimed, “Ribbono shel Olam, we’re more stubborn than You! You cremated our parents, our siblings, and our rebbeim, but still we built a sukkah here in Auschwitz and we even said Shehecheyanu and thanked You for the life You have given us.”
Those Yidden who called from the depths of unimaginable suffering were celebrating for one reason only. They understood down to the deepest parts of their being, ashreinu ma tov chelkeinu, the honor that it is to be a Jew and to keep Hashem’s Torah. Nothing can take that away.
Rabi Akiva’s view of the sukkah would seem to emanate from his whole approach to avodas Hashem. He is the one who said, “Kol d’avid Rachmana l’tav avid — all that Hashem does is for the good.” It is the opposite of “it was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” To Rabi Akiva, all times are incredible for a Jew. He was the one who, when he looked upon the pitiful scene of the Beis Hamikdash in ruins, his face lit up with joy and he actually laughed with the knowledge that it would be rebuilt to more glory than ever before. With that deep emunah and resilience, he created a path for us to serve the Ribbono shel Olam in all possible eventualities and situations.
There are different ways to raise children. A father of means can provide every minor and major need of his child and meet his every desire. The child need do no more than ring a bell and a servant will appear with whatever it is he wants. The father has showered the child with love, but has he prepared him for real life? If his wealth disappears and he can no longer get his way by ringing a bell, how will he survive? On the other hand, a father who provides the tools to succeed, while training his child to survive on his own, has really given much more. He has guaranteed life.
Rabi Akiva prepares us to serve Hashem with simchas hachaim and celebration of our proud inheritance in the brightest as well as in the darkest of hours. He taught us about a Yiddishkeit that empowers Jews throughout the ages to say Shehecheyanu not only at festive seudos surrounded by family and friends, but even in the dark night of Auschwitz. Rabi Akiva’s sukkah shows us that no matter how the world treats us, there is a joyous consistency to our avodas Hashem.
Harav Moshe Tuvia Lieff is Mara d’Asra of Khal Agudath Israel Bais Binyomin in Brooklyn, New York.