Sukkot (or Succos, for Ashkenazim), comes right on the heels of the somber and reflective "High Holy Days" of Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur. Jews are commanded - twice - to be happy: (Deuteronomy 16:13-15) You shall make the festival of Sukkos.. You shall rejoice on your festival .. A seven day period shall you celebrate to Hashem .. and you will be completely joyous.
("V'samachta BeChagecha .. V'Hayita Ach Sameyach"). Now that we have repented our sins and been judged favorably, we celebrate - joyously. Many have the custom to begin building the Sukka on the night that Yom Kippur ends.
Judaism is replete with symbols. But most of these are either Rabbinic or custom-based. Sukkot is notable for its many biblically mandated symbols: (Leviticus 23:40) On the first day, you will take for yourselves a fruit of a beautiful tree, palm branches, twigs of a braided tree and brook willows, and you will rejoice before the L-RD your G-d for seven days.
. We call these the "Arba Minim", the four species: the Etrog, a citrus-like fruit; the Lulav, the center-branch from a date-palm tree; 3 Hadasim, myrtle branches; and 2 Aravot, branches from a willow. We bind the branches together and hold them together with the Etrog and wave them in the six directions: forward, right, back, left, up, and down - symbolizing that G-d is all around us. Some say (based on their shapes) that the Lulav symbolizes the spine; the Etrog, the heart; the Hadas the eyes; and the Arava, the lips, showing that we serve Hashem with our entirety. Others point out that the Etrog has both a beautiful fragrance and taste, where the hadas has a beautiful fragrance and but is inedible, the lulav (at least the dates) can be eaten, and the Aravos have neither quality - symbolizing that all Jews - those with Torah and Good Deeds, Good Deeds but no Torah, Torah but no Deeds and those devoid of either, must all join together in the service of G-d.
The "Arba Minim", or "four species": Etrog, Lulav, Hadasim and Aravot
Of course, the name of the holiday itself comes from the Sukkos, or huts, that we are commanded to live in: (Leviticus 23:42) You shall dwell in booths for seven days; every natives in Israel shall dwell in booths.
This is a rare time we are told why: (ibid, 43) So that your generation will know that I caused the Children of Israel to dwell in booths when I took them from the land of Egypt; I am Hashem, your God.
The Talmud (Sukka 11b) cites a disagreement (naturally) if this refers to actual booths or to the "Ananei HaKavod", the Clouds of Glory that surrounded the Jews during their 40 years in the desert. One thing is clear: the construction of the Sukka, with it's flimsy roof, serves to remind us that this world is temporal, and even if we think we are safe from the elements, it's really God that controls our destiny. And this lesson is clear after seeing all of the "natural" calamities of the past year.
Succa-exterior view (click to see full sized image)
Succa-interior view (click to see full sized image)
You might ask, if that's so, why is the holiday now - shouldn't it be right after Passover, when the Jews left Egypt?
Some commentators explain that if we left our houses in the spring-time, it looks like we're just going out to enjoy the weather. Going out now, when summer is over and it's starting to get chilly and threatening rain - now, that makes our gentile neighbors scratch their heads at these "crazy Jews"!
The Ga'on Rabbi Eliyahu of Vilna
explained that after the sin of the Golden Calf, the Clouds of Glory departed. There followed a period of intense T'shuva (repentance). Moses returned up the mountain two more times to try to gain God's complete forgiveness, finally returning with the second Luchos (tablets) on Yom Kippur [see Rashi, Sh'mos 23:11], with the directive to build the Mishkan (Tabernacle). The next day, they started collecting materials, and that lasted for three days. The day after that, the 15th of Tishrei, construction began, and that's when the Clouds returned. So, explains the Gr"a, Sukkot symbolizes God's acceptance of our T'shuva, both then and now.
This is just scratching the surface. There is much to be said about the Mussafim (extra offerings) and the 70 nations, the Ushpizin ("guests") that we welcome each night, and the theme of water that permeates the holiday, but we'll save that for another time.
This year, Sukkot begins at sundown on Monday, October 17th.