One of the simple explanations for the commandment to dwell in a sukka on the Festival of Sukkot lies in the dual feeling that the experience creates. On the one hand, there is the sense of exile, of leaving one’s house to dwell in a temporary structure, but there is also a feeling of recollection as we remember the exodus from Eygpt. In dwelling in the temporary structure of the sukka, we give up all our bounty and abundance; we return to the nation’s original condition, to experience the wandering and deficiency, wherein there is only faith and hope for the future but nothing substantial in the present.
Indeed, if one can live temporarily in the wilderness and once again be wandering, dispossessed exile, he can view his life in a different – joyful – way.
The time of the ingathering is a source of joy for some, who celebrate their success, and a source of frustration and despondency for others. On Sukkot, the Festival of the Ingathering, we are commanded to dwell in the sukka – the primordial state, in which one sees life’s simple and basic graces, and one rejoices in what he has instead of making demands and recalling nonexistent rights.
This return to the primordial point, to the place from which things begin, is what enables one to attain joy. The days of Sukkot, then, are like a recipe for joy. Through the humility of putting oneself where he belongs, a person learns to appreciate life’s gifts – the blessings that exist. The less he believes in “I deserve better,” and the more he experiences the original condition of deficiency and the exile, the more he will appreciate all the bounty, and attain happiness from it.
This joy is perhaps not ecstatic, but it is true joy that will grow from day to day – from the joy of the festival to Simḥat Beit HaShoeva and to Simḥat Torah.
This essay first appeared in Change & Renewal by Rabbi Steinsaltz.