There are several topics pertaining to the festival of Succot that their foundations need to be understood, as well as the connection between them. We will ask some questions that will help us sharpen the point:
1. Why do we read Megillat Kohelet (The Book of Ecclesiastes) on Succot? This Book is full of pessimism and despair toward the world, whereas the festival of Succot is the festival of simcha (rejoicing), as is written in the Torah, "You shall rejoice on your festival...so that you will be only happy."
2. Why is there a special mitzvah to rejoice specifically on the festival of Succot?
3. Why did G-d establish the festival of Succot specifically at this time of the year?
4. Why does the s'chach (the "roof" of the Succah) have to be made only out of vegetation?
5. Why is there a libation (drink-offering) of water on the altar on the festival of Succot in addition to the daily wine libation?
Reading Kohelet on Succot
On the festival of Succot we read Megillat Kohelet. The Talmud (Shabbat 30b) recounts: "The sages considered concealing the Book of Kohelet since its words contradict each other. And why did they not conceal it? Since it begins with Divrei (words of) Torah and concludes with Divrei Torah. Which words contradict each other? It is written, 'I praised happiness (Kohelet 8:15)' and it is written (2:2), 'merriment, what good is it?' The Gemara reconciles the contradiction: "I praised happiness" refers to simcha of mitzvah. "Merriment-what good is it," that is simcha which is not connected to mitzvah.
We have to understand in depth the words of the Gemara: why is the only legitimate simcha the simcha of mitzvah? And we can explain, that when we reflect upon life in this world, we discover that there is no significance to it. As is written repeatedly in the Book of Kohelet (1:4-14), "One generation goes, another comes, but the earth endures forever... All streams flow into the sea, yet the sea is never full; they retrace their steps there, to the place where the streams flow... I have observed all the deeds done under the sun, but see, all is futile and a source of despair!" Shlomo Hamelech (King Solomon) describes life in this world as cyclical and having no significance, since everyone dies in the end. And the wealthy man has no advantage as a result of his wealth or the wise man from his intelligence, since in the end everyone will die. We live for all kinds of different objectives but forget the real essence of life.
One who delves deeply in the Book sees that Kohelet (Shlomo) gives us answers to his questions. Therefore our Sages tell us in the Gemara that there is a positive type of simcha, and that is simcha of mitzvah, since that kind of simcha is "grasping" eternity. When, on the other hand, the simcha is superficial, disconnected from the depth and root of life, that is empty simcha, which is defective: "Merriment-what good is it?" However, when we are connected to the purpose of our life, our life has significance. And what is that purpose? It is the revelation of G-d's will, and clinging to Him. When one rejoices in a mitzvah he grasps eternity; he gives vitality to the action (the mitzvah) which glorifies G-d's name in the world, and therefore that simcha is positive and good: "I praised happiness."
The Festival of Rejoicing
Succot is the only festival that the Torah commands us three times to rejoice on it. As it is written, (Devarim 16:14-15) "You shall rejoice on your festival...so that you will be only happy." And it is also written, (Vayikra 23:40) "You shall rejoice before G-d seven days." The reason for the simcha is written in the Midrash (Pesikta D'Rav Cahana on Devarim chap. 16) "Since the souls received their dimus (amnesty) on Yom HaKippurim, and the fruit is inside (harvested), therefore three rejoicings are written: "You shall rejoice on your festival," "You shall rejoice before G-d," and "You will be only happy." Therefore the reason to rejoice on the festival of Succot is that we were acquitted in the judgement of Yom Kippur, and also since this is a season of economic abundance, in which a man harvests all his produce and fruit, and sees all his wealth, as the festival of Succot is called by the Torah "the Harvest Festival" (Shemot 23:16) "The Harvest Festival [right after] the end of the year, when you gather your produce from the field."
The Potential Hazard of Economic Abundance
There is a possibility that when one attains great wealth, he will count his possessions and delight in them, and then the inclination to be arrogant will steal into him, that is, to think that all this wealth came from his own strength, as the Torah cautions us (Devarim 8:11-17): "Be careful that you do not forget G-d your Lord, not keeping His commandments, decrees and laws, which I am prescribing to you today. You may then eat and be satisfied, building fine houses and living in them. Your herds and flocks may increase, and you may amass much silver and gold-everything you own may increase. But your heart may then grow haughty, and you may forget God your Lord, the One who brought you out of the slave house that was Egypt...and you might say to yourself, 'It was my own strength and personal power that brought me all this prosperity.'"
At the time that one has all the abundance of the entire year, he is commanded to leave his luxurious house and live in a temporary home for a week. He looks at the s'chach (roof) of the Succah, which is made of natural material, as is written in the Mishna (Succah chap.1), "Everything that does not become impure (that is, it has not been refined into an implement) and grows from the ground, can be used for roofing the Succah." Then a man remembers He who created the world, and gave him this abundance. The man recalls creation, temporariness, and the Creator of the world. And by virtue of that, he directs his rejoicing towards eternity, towards G-d who gave him all this abundance. And when one reaches that realization, he shares the simcha he has with the poor and the needy around him, in order to demonstrate that this simcha is not only his, but G-d's, as the Torah says (Devarim 16:14), "You shall rejoice on your festival along with your son and daughter, your male and female slave, and the Levite, proselyte, orphan and widow from your settlements." There is no problem in a man rejoicing in his wealth, as long as he directs this simcha towards G-d. And as a result of directing one's simcha towards holiness, the simcha will be whole.
The Water on the Festival of Succot
There is a great emphasis on the concept of "water" on the festival of Succot. The Mishna (Rosh Hashana chap.1) tells us, "On the festival (Succot) is the judgement regarding the water."
And accordingly, the Mishna (Succah chap.4) recounts, pertaining to the water libation that was all seven days of the festival of Succot in the Temple: "Succah and water libation, seven (are practiced all seven days of the festival of Succot)."
The connection between Succot and water is also apparent in that we begin to recall (that is, to say in the daily prayers) "He who causes the wind to blow and the rain to fall" on Succot. The Sages held opposing views (for various reasons) as to whether we begin to recall rain at the beginning of the festival or at the end (on the last day), as is written in the Mishna (Taanit 2a), "When do we start recalling "powers of rains" (He who causes the wind to blow and the rain to fall)? Rabbi Eliezer says, from the first Yom Tov of the festival (Succot). Rabbi Yehoshua says, from the last Yom Tov of the festival."
Likewise, we see that the reason for the four species (Arba'at Haminim) is to appease and ask for water, as the Gemara (Taanit 2b) states, "Rabbi Eliezer said, [since] these four species do not come except in order to appease for water, and just as these four species cannot exist without water, thus the world cannot exist without water."
We see from this that the festival of Succot has a direct connection to water. It would seem logical to say, that the reason we mention the water so much during the festival of Succot is that the winter is close at hand, so during this festival we are requesting to merit rain. But apparently there is more depth to it than that. The Talmud (Taanit 7a) tells us that the Torah is compared to water, and explains why: "Rabbi Chanina Bar Idi says, 'why are the words of Torah likened to these three liquids: water, wine and milk? To teach us, just as water departs from a high place and flows to a low one, thus the words of Torah do not exist (in their depth and authenticity) except in one who "lowers" himself (that is, one who is humble).' And Rabbi Oshaiya said, 'Just as these three liquids cannot survive except in the humblest of containers (earthenware, and not silver or gold), similarly the words of Torah cannot exist except in the humble.'"
We know that water is the source of life for man, and that without it, he cannot live. Thus without Torah, which shows us the path to life, there is no meaning to our life, as we saw previously in the Book of Kohelet. And so we saw in the Gemara, that the Torah is acquired particularly by one who lowers himself, by he who live in complete humility towards G-d. And therefore on the Festival of Succot we leave our home and enter the Succah, which is called by the Zohar "the Shadow of Emuna (faith)." By virtue of this Emuna, that G-d is the provider of our abundance; the rejoicing becomes a great and complete simcha.
The rain is the G-d given worldly abundance that comes down to us. When we nullify ourselves towards Him and recognize that all the wealth that we have received, and all that we will receive from G-d, is a "free gift" from Him, them G-d is appeased and continues to provide us from His great goodness.
The Completeness of the Festival
In conclusion, we see that the central point of the festival of Succot is rejoicing, that is, simcha that is attained through wholeness. Succot is the last of the three festivals in the Torah. After the exodus from Egypt (Pesach) and the receiving of the Torah (Shavuot) follows Succot, the festival which is focused on Eretz Israel. We encounter earthiness that comes through connecting the holiness which we have received to practical life; complete simcha which comes through recognition of G-d and great humility towards Him. Also Succot follows the High Holy Days, which one came out them being considered righteous before judgement, and he rejoices in being given another year to live his life, connected to the Creator of the World. And as we saw, this is also the time of the year that one is at the peak of his wealth, the Festival of the Harvest.
Succot is not a festival of conclusion, but rather there is in it the simcha of beginning, of appeasement before the rains, of asking G-d to continue helping us, as He has done up to now. And also that this year should be a good year, in every sense. And when G-d sees us rejoicing in Him, and performing His Mitzvot, He continues to provide for us from His abundance.
May we merit, with G-d's help, to bring together all the great lights that are in this festival: to appease for rains, to rejoice out of real simcha, and that our mundane lives may be elevated to eternal and holy life. May this year be one of physical and spiritual abundance that will bring us closer to G-d, and to the complete redemption speedily.
All the Scriptural quotations are based on Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan's the Living Torah and the Living Nach.