We are now in the midst of the Yom Tov season. This season begins with Rosh HaShannah and ends with the celebration of Succot, and specifically, Shemini Atzeret. What is the relationship between these three festivals or sacred days?
The connection between Rosh HaShannah and Yom Kippur is well known. The process of judgment begins with Rosh HaShannah and is completed with Yom Kippur. But is there a relationship between the observance of Succot and the two prior holidays – Rosh HaShannah and Yom Kippur? I believe that the answer to this question is not only significant to our appreciation of the message of Succot, but also provides an important insight into our observance of Rosh HaShannah and Yom Kippur.
This issue is discussed by our Sages in the context of a different question. Our Sages were troubled by the observance of Succot in the fall. Succot recalls the sojourn of our ancestors in the wilderness. The succot we build, and in which we live, during Succot recalls the Divine protection our ancestors enjoyed during their travels in the midbar – the wilderness. The wilderness was a hostile environment. It was barren and dry. The environment was bereft of the elements necessary for survival and the climate was life threatening. As the nation traveled through the wilderness, it lived in flimsy huts similar to our succot. These insubstantial shelters were inadequate to protect the people from the assault of the elements. Hashem covered the nation with His clouds and these clouds protected the nation for the forty years of travel through the midbar.
Bnai Yisrael left Egypt and entered the wilderness in the spring and we would expect the festival of Succot to be celebrated in that season. Why is the observance of Succot postponed to the fall?
Our Sages offer a number of responses to this question. The most well-known explanation is offered by Tur. He begins with a premise. The commandment to dwell in the succah is formulated in a manner that demonstrates this activity is performed as a mitzvah. In other words, in formulating this mitzvah, the Torah wishes to demonstrate that we are dwelling in the succah in response to a commandment.
Based upon this premise, Tur explains the celebration of Succot in the fall. If Succot were celebrated in the spring, it would not be clear that we are dwelling in the succah in response to a mitzvah. Spring weather is pleasant. We enjoy spending time outdoors in the spring. However, in the fall the outdoors is less inviting. The rainy season is beginning. It is damp and the air is crisp and cooler. The summer has ended and we now wish to return to the indoors. Dwelling in the succah in the fall cannot be mistaken for an act of leisure. It is clearly the response to a commandment.
Tur’s explanation does not suggest any relationship between Succot and the preceding holidays. According to his explanation, Succot is not observed in the fall because of any relationship with the preceding observances. It is observed in the fall in order to demonstrate that our dwelling in the succah is a response to a commandment.
However, it is possible to propose an alternative explanation for the observance of Succot in the fall. This explanation requires that we further consider the significance of Succot.
Maimonides explains that although we are required to rejoice on all festivals, Succot is especially associated with rejoicing. What is the nature of this rejoicing? Over what are we rejoicing? Maimonides explains that we should not perceive our service to Hashem as a burden. Instead, we should serve Hashem and perform His commandments with joy. The rejoicing we express on Succot is intended to convey this attitude of joy in the service of Hashem and performance of His mitzvot.
Let us compare this Succot “theme” with the dominant theme of Rosh HaShannah and Yom Kippur. These two holidays are associated with judgment. The emphasis is on Hashem’s majesty and kingship. On Rosh HaShannah and Yom Kippur we experience a sense of awe. Yet, we are obligated to rejoice on Rosh HaShannah – even Yom Kippur has an element of rejoicing. However, this is not the dominant theme of these holidays. Our rejoicing is inevitably overwhelmed by the recognition that we stand before Hashem in judgment. Our sense of awe dominates.
However, the awe we experience on Rosh HaShannah and Yom Kippur is only one element of our relationship with Hashem. We are also obligated to rejoice in our relationship with Hashem. If the holidays ended with Yom Kippur, our expression of our relationship with Hashem would be incomplete. It would lack the second element of our relationship – our joy in serving Hashem and performing His commandments. The celebration of Succot complements our observance of Rosh HaShannah and Yom Kippur by focusing to the second element of our relationship with Hashem – the element of rejoicing and joy.
According to this interpretation, the celebration of Succot in the fall is linked to our observance of Rosh HaShannah and Yom Kippur. It completes the process of renewing our full relationship with Hashem.
Aruch HaShulchan offers a third explanation for the observance of Succot in the fall.
Before considering his comments, it will be helpful do reflect on another issue.
In Sefer Devarim, Moshe delivers his final message to Bnai Yisrael. He is addressing the generation that will enter and conquer the Land of Israel. His message begins with an enumeration of the various incidents in which Bnai Yisrael sinned against Hashem during its travels in the wilderness. Why does Moshe feel compelled to remind this generation of the various failings and sins of its parents?
The most obvious explanation is that Moshe is providing a warning. He is recounting the sins of the parents in order to admonish their children. He is warning this next generation against repeating the mistakes of its parents. Nachmanides accepts this explanation but he makes an important addition. He explains that Moshe was not only reminding the nation of the sins of its parents and warning it against repeating these behaviors, but he was also reminding this new generation that despite these sins and shortcomings, Hashem did not abandon its parents.
Nachmanides continues and explains the importance of this message. This new generation was charged with the role of conquering and possessing the Land of Israel. This was a role that they knew they could only fulfill with Hashem’s assistance. Yet, sin is part of the human condition. This new generation would realize that regardless of its efforts, it would be inevitable that its conduct would not be perfect. When it predictably sins, will Hashem abandon it?
Moshe’s address is designed to respond to this doubt. He reminds this new generation that their parents also sinned against Hashem. But Hashem’s mercy is abundant. He never abandoned their parents. Instead, He helped them repent and return to His service. Moshe assured this new generation that it too would enjoy the same relationship with Hashem. They will make mistakes and sin. But Hashem – in His mercy – will not abandon them.
Nachmanides’ message is that we are not created as perfect human beings. We are each faced with a lifelong mission of gradual and steady self-improvement and self-realization. Teshuvah – repentance – is a lifelong process. In order to devote ourselves to this process and mission, we must feel confident that Hashem will indulge us by treating us with patience. If Hashem judges us according to the strict standard of din – justice – we cannot survive and fulfill our mission. In other words, we will only engage in the process of personal growth and teshuvah if we feel confident that Hashem will forgive our failings and provide us with the opportunity to grow and support our efforts. If we lack this confidence, it is likely we will dismiss the process of repentance as a wasted effort.
Aruch HaShulchan derives from Nachmanides’ comments a further explanation of the celebration of Succot in the fall. He explains that on Rosh HaShannah and Yom Kippur we confront our failings. We devote ourselves to teshuvah and to the objective of securing atonement. But as we confront our shortcomings and failings, we may question – or even doubt – the efficacy of our efforts to restore our relationship with Hashem. We may question whether we deserve and can secure Hashem’s forgiveness. These doubts can easily undermine our efforts to repent and change. We even may question whether the effort required to change is justified.
Succot responds to these doubts. Succot recalls Hashem’s mercy and providence over our ancestors in the wilderness. It reminds us that our ancestors sinned gravely in creating and worshipping the egel – the golden calf. But their repentance and Moshe’s intercession secured their forgiveness. Despite their sin, Hashem spread His clouds and protection over our ancestors and protected them during their sojourn in the midbar. In short, Succot reminds us of Hashem’s forbearance, mercy, and the efficacy of repentance. As we observe Rosh HaShannah and Yom Kippur, we remember that Succot is approaching. We are struggling with the imperative to change and repent. But our knowledge that Succot is approaching encourages us and reminds us of the efficacy of our efforts. It communicates to us that Hashem is eager to forgive us. If we restore our relationship with Him, He will forgive us and redeem us.
 Rabbaynu Yaakov ben HaRash, Tur Shulchan Aruch, Orech Chayim 625.
 Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Mishne Torah, Hilchot Lulav 8:12-15.
 Rabbaynu Moshe ben Nachman (Ramban / Nachmanides), Commentary on Sefer Devarim, Introduction.
 Rav Aharon HaLeyve Epstein, Aruch HaShulchan, Orech Chayim 625:5.