The Rema—the great Halakhic Codifier of Ashkenazi Jewry—rules that we should build the sukkah on the day after Yom Kippur (starting even right after we break the fast) (Orach Chaim, 624:5-625:1). Some infer that, ideally, we are not supposed to even begin construction of the sukkah at all during the Aseret Yemei Teshuva—the days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.
R. Chaim Mordechai Margulies, author of the Shaarei Teshuva, asks an important question: Would it not be better to build the sukkah before Yom Kippur, so that the mitzvah of building the sukkah might accrue to our merit before the Day of Judgment?
I think the answer is to be found in a deep understanding of the symbolism of the sukkah.
Of course, the sukkah represents many things. It represents the Clouds of Glory that accompanied us in the desert, when God took care of our every need. It represents our continued dependence on God—as we can only sit in the sukkah if there is fine weather. The sukkah represents the transience of material goods, as we set aside our beautiful, permanent homes, and dwell for seven days in a hut constructed from the left-overs after the harvest. The sukkah reminds us that we are part of a community, as we leave the walls of our homes and see and hear our friends, our neighbors, the stranger, and the other, in the world outside.
But there is a lot of evidence that sukkah also represents the Mishkan—the Tabernacle, that portable Temple which we built in the wilderness and carried with us as we traveled from place to place.
The physical structure itself recalls the Mishkan. On the most basic level, it is a box with a simple covering spread over it. It consists of two full walls and a shorter wall creating the space within it. Indeed, the Talmud derives the minimum height for the sukkah from the Mishkan (Sukkah 4b).
Further, the Gemara determines that there is a mitzvah to dwell in a sukkah both during the day and the night, by comparing the term used regarding Sukkot to the term used to describe Aharon and his sons dwelling in the Mishkan for seven days and nights before its inauguration (Sukkah 43b).
If you look at old English-language Machzorim for the Festival of Sukkot, you will see that the holiday is called “the Feast of Tabernacles.”
The sukkah as Mishkan explains our question why the Rema felt that the sukkah had to be built specifically after Yom Kippur. On a technical, Biblical level, the primary function of Yom Kippur was to purify the Mikdash, to wipe clean the slate, so that Temple service could continue to operate year-in and year-out despite inevitable human error. It was like a yearly tune-up for the Temple. Symbolically, the cleansing of the Mishkan cleansed and wiped clean the slate so that God’s presence could continue to manifest among the people of Israel. Only after this national re-dedication of the central Mikdash, can we construct our own personal Mishkan in purity and sanctity.
On Yom Kippur, we transported ourselves to the Mikdash. We retold and re-enacted the sacred sacrificial service, our eyes were all trained on the Kohen Gadol, the high priest. Would he go in and come out in peace this year?
But on Sukkot, in a few days’ time, we bring a little of the Mikdash to us. Cleansed and purified, we each build our own little Tabernacle in which we will dwell with HaShem. On Sukkot, every one of us is our own Kohen Gadol, entering into that private sanctuary—Lifnai v’Linfnim—into the Holy of Holies.
As we build the sukkah in these days after Yom Kippur, let us revel in the excited anticipation of the intimate encounter with the Divine, and let us consider how we capture the energy of Sukkot and create a space for the Shechina in our daily lives all-year-round.
Shabbat Shalom and Chag Sameach!