The Medrash (Bereishis Rabbah 48:10) tells us that Klal Yisroel received the Ananei Hakovod (Clouds of Glory), the source of the Yom Tov of Sukkos, because of Avrohom Avinu: “Hashem said to Avrohom, ‘You said let them rest under the tree.’ By your life I will repay your children…with the Clouds of Glory.”
We must wonder what was so unusual and generous in Avrohom Avinu’s offer to his guests. Avrohom was the embodiment of all chesed, so what was so special about this part of his hachnosas orchim?
The Ozerover Rebbe (Be’er Moshe, Bereishis 18:4) answers that just as Avrohom made believers out of pagan idol worshippers, so does Klal Yisroel dwell in a sukkah made out of the “leftovers of the threshing floor and the wine cellars” (Devorim 16:13). The lowly materials of our Sukkos magically turn into a home for the Holy Shechinah. This can be explained more deeply by referencing the Gemara’s term for this commandment as a mitzvah kallah, an easy mitzvah. Chazal explain this to mean that one can fulfill the mitzvah relatively cheaply. Indeed, in times bygone, many poor people simply salvaged some discarded wood for the walls, and gathered otherwise useless branches and leaves, instantly creating a home for eight days. But not only did these simple materials serve impoverished human beings, but the holy Ushpizin and the Creator Himself entered with great joy. This explains part of the greatness Avrohom Avinu built into his invitation to “recline under the tree.” The first of our Avos was teaching us how to transform every element of creation into a vehicle for mitzvos and spreading kevod Shomayim.
We can only imagine today the mesirus nefesh and courage of those who built Sukkos in the ghettos and concentration camps under the watchful eyes of the Nazi murderers. Rav Mordechai Goldstein tells of his father, Rav Tuviah, rosh yeshiva of Yeshivas Emek Halacha, building a sukkah made of ice and snow in the Soviet wastes of Siberia.
Rav Yoel Teitlebaum of Kerelhaus tells of the underground sukkos they built when incarcerated in the Finef-teichen concentration camp in 5605 (1945) toward the end of the war. The Nazis pushed the prisoners into the primitive pits during air raids and allied bombings but the Yidden covered the tops with twigs and leaves, allowing them to eat their meager rations with a leisheiv basukah. Not only were the domeim and tzomeach harnessed for a mitzvah, but the ground and even the underground suddenly became kodesh kodoshim in the midst of the Nazi Gehenom. The zechusim of those moments of simcha undoubtedly still help us today in moments of distress or anxiety.
We are now in a position to explain the seeming contradiction between Avrohom Avinu’s role as the source of Sukkos and that of Yaakov Avinu. We know that after Yaakov Avinu’s encounter with Eisav, he traveled toward a place and named it Sukkos (Bereishis 33:17). The question has been asked for many centuries. Why did Yaakov Avinu name the place Sukkos because he had built rudimentary booths for his cattle but built a house for the people of his family? Why name the place for all eternity because of the cattle? Furthermore, the Tur (517) tells us that Sukkos corresponds to Yaakov Avinu, but what of Avrohom Avinu’s role, as we saw in the Medrash?
Rav Gedaliah Schorr (Ohr Gedalyahu, “Simchas Bais Hashoeivah, page 219) teaches us that the exceptional joy of Sukkos (Rambam, end of Hilchos Lulav) flows from its connection to Yaakov Avinu. He quotes from the Maharal (Tiferes Yisroel 30) that Yaakov Avinu is the bechir shebe’avos – the highest of the avos – which leads to simcha (see also Rashi, Bereishis 47:31). This is why Sukkos is the most joyous of Yomim Tovim. My rebbi, Rav Yitzchok Hutner (Pachad Yitzchok, Yom Hakippurim 7:3) adds that Sukkos represents both the culmination of the Yomim Noraim cycle and that of the Shalosh Regalim. In this sense, it represents the gmar – finality – of both periods of kedusha, just as Yaakov Avinu represents the cumulative greatness of all three avos. Where, then, does Avrohom Avinu enter this equation?
I would suggest that the answer may be found in another teaching of Rav Hutner (Maamorei Pachad Yitzchok, Sukkos 22 and 63:5). Yeshayahu hanovi (29:22) tells us that “Bais Yaakov asher padah es Avrohom – Who redeemed Avrohom to the House of Yaakov.” Rav Hutner notes that we can deduce two things from this passage. First of all, we see that Avrohom requires redemption. Secondly, that will be accomplished by Yaakov Avinu. What can this possibly mean? Rav Hutner explains that although Avrohom gave birth to a Yishmoel and Yitzchok to an Eisav, there is no complaint against them for doing so. This is because the process leading to the perfection of Klal Yisroel required the three-fold generations (Koheles 4:12) which lead to permanence. Nevertheless, it is Yaakov who “redeems” Avrohom (and by extension) Yitzchok from the seeming imperfections of their own progeny.
In any case, we can readily see that in Yaakov we find the consummate attainment of Klal Yisroel’s perfection and connection to eternity. Thus, the great simcha of Sukkos – the fulfillment of the shlichus of Klal Yisroel (see Pachad Yitzchok 7:2) – begins with Avrohom Avinu and culminates with Yaakov Avinu.
We may learn another aspect of the relationship between Yaakov Avinu and Sukkos from the Sefas Emes (Sukkos, Har Etzyon ed., page 145). He quotes, as he does so often, from his grandfather, the Chiddushei Harim, that the Torah refers to Yaakov Avinu’s making “sukkos” for his cattle because the word mikneihu (cattle) evokes the concept of kinyan. The Mishnah (Pirkei Avos 6:10) reveals that “one of the five kinyanim (acquisitions) Hashem made in the world is Klal Yisroel. The Sefas Emes himself interprets this to mean that after Yaakov had established his ultimate dominion and superiority over Eisav, he was able to go forward to Sukkos, meaning our triumph over Eisav. Once again, although Avrohom Avinu set in motion the events leading to Sukkos, it was eventually Yaakov Avinu’s avodah that created the Yom Tov of Acharis Hayomim, the End of Days.
Rav Moshe Wolfson (Emunas Itecha, “Chol Hamoed Sukkos,” page 129) takes all this even further by quoting the extraordinary words of the Zohar (printed in the machzorim before tekias shofar) that on “Rosh Hashanah Yaakov seized the brachos from Eisav, on Yom Kippur he sends Eisav a gift, and then he hides himself from Eisav in the sukkah.” Rav Wolfson explains that Yaakov Avinu had no worries from Eisav for himself. However, he was preparing all future generations to survive the onslaughts from Eisav through the protective powers of the sukkah.
We might add at this point that all of the ushpizin come to our sukkos and add their own power of refuge and shelter from Eisav and his ilk. Thus, once again, although Avrohom Avinu’s avodah of chesed brought the potential of the sukkah into the world, it was Yaakov’s labors against Eisav that gave us the gift of our sukkos and their annual haven from evil and danger. It is indeed no wonder that even in the frigid Gulag and Auschwitz, the hearts of Yisroel kedoshim yearned to hide even for a moment in arms of the Shechinah.
Our sukkos were built by a combination of the efforts of Avrohom and Yaakov, but every time we add a panel or piece of bamboo, we become part of the eternal struggle against the Eisavs and Yishmoels of the world. They try to build edifices of tumah and we counter with taharah. They fight with weapons of war and we invite all our early generations to join us in displaying our spiritual superiority. As the rebbe Rashab of Chabad noted, Avrohom Avinu stood above the angels when he served them, because to elevate the physical is even greater than not to be physical at all. Avrohom Avinu’s sukkos allow us to tower over the malachim and Yaakov Avinu’s sukkos provide a bulwark against all our enemies throughout history.
It is the simple building materials of the sukkah that are the building blocks of eternity as well. Hashem doesn’t want us to be angels, but not to be consumed by materialism either. Our greatness is hidden in the things others discard and disdain. But for us it provides a week to consider our place in the universe and to fulfill our ultimate mission of the ingathering of the crops and the lost souls so that we can all sit together in the sukkah of Moshiach.