Why do we make the sukkah (shortly) after Yom Kippur? Since we find the Holy One, blessed be He, sitting (in judgment) on Rosh Hashana before the entire world, and on Yom Kippur He signs the judgment, perhaps the Jews' judgment that year was to be exiled. Therefore, we … "exile ourselves" from our homes into the sukkah, and the Holy One, blessed be He, considers it as if we were exiled to Babylon. (Yalkut Shimoni, Emor)
The above reason given to explain the close proximity between Yom Kippur and Succos is perplexing on a number of counts. First, of all possible punishments which Hashem could inflict upon us for past misdeeds, why should we specifically concern ourselves with exile? Why should we not worry about more likely events such as famine, disease, or persecution at the hands of our gentile neighbors? Second, even if exile was in fact ordered, how can we assume that the relatively benign act of entering a sukkah would satisfy such a decree? Certainly, we would expect exile to be a much harsher experience than this!
In reality, there is a particular motivation to specifically fear a decree of exile, than other punishments. Exile serves two primary functions. The first purpose is for the land, to remove from it the presence of a sinful nation which fails to keep Hashem's precepts.
You shall therefore keep my statutes and my judgments, and shall not commit any of these abominations… For all these abominations have the men of the land done, which were before you, and the land is defiled. The land should not vomit you out also, when you defile it, as it vomited out the nations that were before you. (Vayikra 18:26-28)
The second purpose, more significant says Rav Chaim Freidlander (Sifsei Chaim, Vol. 1, p. 228ff), is to instill within a complacent, arrogant nation a strong sense of humility.
Yeshurun became fat, and kicked. You have become fat, thick, and gross. Then he forsook Hashem who made him, and spurned the Rock of his salvation… They sacrificed to powerless spirits, not to Hashem… You ignored the Mighty One that fathered you, and have forgotten Hashem who formed you. (Devarim 32:15, 17-18)
It was largely because of their arrogance that the Jewish people acted with such indifference towards Hashem. They did not need Him - or so they thought - so they did not heed him. Instead they looked to pagan deities to help unburden themselves of the shackles of Judaism. Eventually, their wanton sinfulness could no longer be tolerated, and the Jewish nation suffered the fate of exile.
How does this idea of exile tie specifically into this time of year? If anything, one would assume that we would be far removed from any concern over exile following the Yomim Noraim, in which we spend countless hours engaged in personal introspection while also working to come to the complete awareness that Hashem is our King and Judge. Arrogance at this time would not appear to be a major concern.
Still, our worries are fully justified. As we transition out of the seriousness of the Yomim Noraim, our thoughts quickly move to the festive days of Succos, the chag ha'asif (festival of the harvest), in which we celebrate the new harvest. Because of our great sense of happiness, celebrating the fruits or our hard labor, we are prone to feelings of arrogance and self-reliance. "And you say in your heart, 'My power and the might of my hand have gotten me this wealth'." (Devarim 8:17)
The enormous sense of accomplishment which accompanies the harvest is likely to awaken a strong degree of pride, which, the Torah tells us, is a primary factor in loosening our sense of dependence and allegiance towards Hashem.
It is for this reason that we are commanded at this time to leave our comfortable, secure surroundings and enter a sukkah. There we are to remain for seven days, living directly under Hashem's protection.
So long as a person remains in his regular domain, it is difficult for him to feel a sense of humility and submission. These feelings come much more readily when one is forced from his home. As Rambam (Hilchos Teshuva, 2:4) writes, "Exile atones because it causes man to become more humble and subdued."
Instead of channeling our joy back within ourselves, as a means of taking excessive pride for our accomplishments, we are reminded to focus on Hashem, our true provider. "And you shall remember the Lord your G-d; for He is who gives you power to get wealth." (Devarim 8:18) Such remembrance will not only keep us humble, but will allow us to achieve the highest degrees of happiness.
In the words of the Sefer HaChinuch:
The days of the festival (of Succos) are days of great joy, since it is the time when the grains and fruit are harvested. Therefore, people celebrate to great degrees. That is why the festival is called "the harvesting festival". Hashem commanded that we make a holiday at this time so as to give (the Jewish people) merit that the primary joy should be directed towards Him. (Sefer HaChinuch, Mitzvah 324)
It is only by focusing our happiness on Hashem, the true provider of our material bounty, that we can achieve the true degree of joy which was intended on this special chag simchaseinu.
Rabbi Naphtali Hoff, M.Ed., is an instructor of Jewish History at Hebrew Theological College (Skokie, Illinois) and serves as associate principal at Yeshiva Shearis Yisroel in Chicago. More information about Rabbi Hoff can be found on his website, www.rabbihoff.com