The very essence of Chag HaSukkot is the mitzvah of dwelling in this temporary “hut,” for—by doing so—we would remind future generations of the desert “experience.” This command is found in the Torah’s words: “BaSukkot teshvu shivat yamim … —You shall dwell in the sukkah for seven days.” The mishna in masechet Sukkah offers two opinions as to the significance of the “hut.” Rabbi Akiva claims that the sukkah recalls the booths in which the Israelites dwelled during the 40-year sojourn in the desert, while Rabbi Eliezer argues the sukkah represents Hashem’s protective clouds that surrounded the nation during that period.
The disagreement between these two great sages may not necessarily be a disagreement at all! One can accept both views as being correct with the difference rooted only in which opinion is the primary one that would demand our observance. In analyzing the essence of the conversation, it seems that the rabbis are considering what lesson is to be passed down to the future generations through our observance of the mitzvah. The Torah clearly states what the purpose of the mitzvah is: “So that your future generations shall know that I placed Bnai Yisrael in sukkot when I took them out of Egypt … ” These ancient scholars debate what exactly the impactive message of the sukkah is—a message that we are charged to pass down to the future generations. Are we to pass on the message that Israel dwelled in huts of their own making during their sojourn in the desert or that Hashem protected His nation beneath His divine cloud cover over those years?
We might understand these different approaches as a difference in understanding what was regarded as essential for Bnai Yisrael to survive the difficult years of wandering, in order to reach their final destination. Rabbi Eliezer posits that without God’s protection through the desert years, the people would have not reached the promised land to experience the completion of their redemption from Egypt. Rabbi Akiva certainly agrees, but he argues that the message for future generations was that—without Bnai Yisrael building their own sukkot—without the people involving themselves in the redemptive process, their arrival into Eretz Yisrael alone would not have brought a true redemption, for they could not depend on Hashem’s miracles forever.
This day’s haftarah reflects those very two approaches.
In analyzing the text of this final chapter in sefer Zecharya (14: 1-24), one might notice that the depiction of the latter-day war is divided into two sections. Rabbi Moshe Lichtenstein compares this battle to wrest control of Yerushalayim from the oppressive enemy to Yehoshua’s battles to wrest control of Eretz Yisrael from the Canaanites. In that campaign, we find Hashem destroying the city of Yericho by miraculously collapsing her walls, while the army did no fighting at all. Subsequently, Israel’s military—with divine assistance—succeeded in defeating the enemy and taking over the land. The success of Israel’s retention of the land, however, was up to the people alone—to carry out the obligations of settling her and removing all foreign influences from her.
Similarly—Rav Lichtenstein suggests—the first part of the perek describes a victory over the enemy that had taken over Yerushalayim and persecuted her inhabitants—a victory granted by Hashem through occurrences that would defy nature and through military victories—spurred by divine assistance, but within the laws of nature. The final part of that geula—the international recognition and worship of the One God—however, would be one accomplished only through human effort. The geula, in effect, must be completed through the actions of man and not God.
The haftarah—when seen in this light—reflects the two views of the mishna. The future generations must dwell in the sukkah knowing that redemption and salvation came through Hashem’s protective cover—but it also must understand that the redemption could be completed only through human efforts. And so, when we look up to the sechach in our sukkah, we should peer beyond it and see the heavens above … but, we should also look directly at the sechach and remember that we had to place it there ourselves!
Rabbi Neil Winkler is the rabbi emeritus of the Young Israel of Fort Lee, and now lives in Israel.