Every year we wonder why there are so many holidays clustered together in the month of Tishrei rather than spread out more equally over the year.
One symbolic answer is that Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur have very different energies and themes from Sukkot. We need to experience Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur before being able to enjoy fully the holiday of Sukkot. When taken together, these two poles form a fuller picture of the relationship between God and the human experience.
Isaac (Yitzchak) (ben Solomon) Luria Ashkenazi (1534 –1572) often referred to as “Ha’ARI” (“The Lion”), “Ha’ARI Hakadosh” (the holy ARI) of Tzefat is considered the father of contemporary Kabbalah, a mystical approach to Judaism which emphasized, among other things, the feminine and masculine aspects of God and the idea of union with God through study, meditation and a kabbalistic understanding of the universe.
He takes our idea a step further. He says the entire purpose of the atonement is for the closeness we reach through Sukkot and Shmini Atzeret, the holiday where God says to his children or beloved who have come to “visit” for the 7-day pilgrimage of Sukkot, “please do not leave me, stay another day…” (ARI did not write a lot down, but his students collected his teachings into a collection called Shaar HaKavanot where this teaching can be found).
As contemporary kabbalist Joel David Bakst clarifies, the left hand represents the Ten Days of Repentance from Rosh Hashana to Yom Kippur. The right hand represents the seven days of Sukkot, culminating in the union on the eight day.
Rabbinic commentary enhances the loving aspect of Sukkot by connecting the festival of Sukkot to the seemingly unrelated Shir Hashirim (Song of Songs, of Song of Solomon chapter 2, verse 6).
Song of Songs says “His left hand was under my head, and his right hand would embrace me. ושְׂמֹאלוֹ֙ תַּ֣חַת לְרֹאשִׁ֔י וִֽימִינ֖וֹ תְּחַבְּקֵֽנִי”
The Song of Songs is literally a love poem between a shepherd and his beloved. However, the rabbis justified its inclusion in the Bible by interpreting it as a metaphor for the relationship between God/ Torah and the people Israel.
Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki (Troyes, France 1040 –1105, Commentator to the Bible and Talmud) says that the embrace may symbolize the clouds of glory which surrounded the Israelites on all sides, protecting them in the desert on their route to Israel.
יש אומרים שהחיבוק הוא משל לענני הכבוד, שהקיפו את בני ישראל במדבר מכל הכיוונים
Rabbi Abraham Isaac Hakohen Kook (1865-1935, born in Latvia), served as the first Ashkenazic chief rabbi of Eretz Israel. In Orot Hateshuvah chapter 9, basing himself on Rashi’s commentary, likens Yom Kippur to the left hand that supports the beloved’s head, and Sukkot to the right hand drawing her in for an embrace.
A final image gives an even more physical representation to this idea of Sukkot symbolizing God’s love for Israel. In setting out the requirement for building a sukkah, the rabbinic law states it must minimally consist of two full walls and a third partial wall.
In Song of Songs 2:6, we read, “his right arm embraces me.” The rabbis explain that God’s arm embraces us through the sukkah. The first wall is like God’s arm, the second wall like God’s forearm and the third small wall is like God’s hand. Together they surround us with a hug.
Humans may not be able to fathom the real essence of God, but in creating images and metaphors, we convey our best possible understandings of the divine, as well as our own needs and highest selves. We acknowledge a need for self-reflection and boundaries, for atonement and improvement. And we also acknowledge a great wish for feeling God’s love, support, acceptance, warmth, and joy. May these balanced and subtle aspects of our experience continue to accompany us during the holidays and throughout the year, in our relationship with the Divine, our relationship to ourselves, and our inter-human interactions.
Rabbi Miriam Berkowitz,