The Sfat Emet explains why Sukkot falls right after Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. He wonders why such a long and joyous holiday follows the Days of Awe and Season of Repentance. But practically speaking, I believe he is also acknowledging what many of us feel this time of year: it is difficult to fully appreciate the joy of Sukkot when we are exhausted following Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. But the Sfat Emet, the former Gerer Rebbe who lived during the second half of the 19th century, explains that following the High Holidays there are many Baalei Teshuvah who don’t have a place for themselves.
This is a play on words here as the chasidic world using the term Baal Teshuvah to describe one who wasn’t previously observant to their religious standards and now is, but it literally means the person who has repented, appropriate following the Day of Atonement and Season of Repentance. Secondly, the Hebrew word Makom means ‘place,’ but is also a name for God, suggesting that God is in all and every place. He concludes that previously, they were lost, and had no ‘place,’ meaning they did not find God in their lives. But now, as Baalei Teshuvah, following repentance, they are found, they find meaning and purpose again, and appreciate God’s blessings all around them. The sukkah is their ‘place’ then to find God and help them do that.
He then makes a connection between the sukkah and the four species (lulav and etrog) and tzitzit and tefillin. The sukkah is like a tallit, or any garment with fringes on its four corners. Those tzitzit, fringes are supposed to remind us of God’s Presence all around us and the tallit, the prayer shawl, like the sukkah, is meant to serve as a reminder of God’s protection. He then connects the four species with the four scrolls that you find with the boxes of tefillin. We are taught that we wrap tefillin so that when we feel it and see it on us, it is a siman, a sign, of God’s Presence in our lives.
It is easy for me to connect to God when sitting in a sukkah, being outdoors, feeling the breeze, and looking up to see the stars through the s’chach. It is much more difficult to expect that fringes of a garment or leather straps can remind you of God’s Presence. But that is our goal: to find God everywhere, in everything, in the everyday. Following the High Holidays, we use the ritual objects of sukkah and lulav and etrog to help us connect to God. They though should be a catalyst to help us not be dependent on temporary booths or tree branches to see God. We should be able to find God in this makom, in this place, and in all places. We use the extraordinary of this festival to find God in hopes that when we transition back to the ordinary, back to the everyday, we find God in that makom as well.
-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky