On the Jewish holiday of Sukkot we build a temporary hut, called a sukkah, and cover it with detached branches or greenery, this covering is called sechach.”

The kabbalists explain that there are two general levels of Divine energy: a transcendent, encompassing energy (ohr makif), and a pervading, internal energy (ohr penimi).

These terms are not meant to convey spatial concepts. Rather, these two aspects of Divine energy correspond to the transcendent and immanent manifestations of the Divine in our world. The encompassing energy is a higher level of Divine manifestation, which is aloof from the creation and does not concern itself with the individual ability of the recipients—in kabbalistic terms, the “vessels”—to absorb it or benefit from it. It is equal in relation to all levels of creation. The pervading energy, though of a lower stature, has an advantage in that it is measured and dispensed according to the ability of the recipients to absorb it and benefit from it.

For example, a scholar who teaches his or her students according to their capacity to understand is said to teach knowledge on the level of pervading energy, since the intellect of the student is penetrated and affected by the “energy” of the teaching. However, had the teacher decided to relate to the students on his or her own level—while the teaching would be of an immensely higher order—it would “fly over the heads” of the students, surrounding, so to speak, but not penetrating, their intellects. This would be the level of encompassing energy.

Of course, each type of energy, encompassing and pervading, has its own advantage, and G‑d relates to us on both levels.

The sechach roof, in particular, represents this transcendent, encompassing energy. For just as the sukkah encompasses all those who are sitting in it equally, so too does this transcendent light.

However, there is an even greater transcendent energy present during Sukkot, which is represented by the heavenly stars shining through the cracks of the sechach. For, unlike the sun and moon, which shine brightly and are relatively near to us, the stars are the most distant visible objects in the sky. When one actually fulfills the observances associated with the sukkah, dwelling within it and making the ritual blessings, these two lofty levels of the transcendent energy are drawn down.

By shaking the four species, the lulav and etrog set, we reveal the pervading, inner energy. For this reason, as we shake the four species, we bring the lulav and etrog closer to our hearts.

Thus, during the holiday of Sukkot, both the transcendent, encompassing energy and the pervading, inner energy come together.1

Why a Thick Covering?

Notwithstanding all the reasons given to see the stars through the roof of the sukkah, there is a long-standing custom of doing just the opposite: covering the sukkah with a thick layer of branches. This was the custom of Rabbi Yaakov ben Moshe HaLevi Moelin (1365-1427), known as the Maharil, a famous authority on Jewish law),2 as well as the custom of the leaders of Chabad.3

To be sure, they would make sure there was a hole in the thick covering from which they could see the stars. This can be accomplished by simply taking a pole and poking it through the branches and greenery, which is what Rabbi Chaim of Volozhin, (preeminent student of the famed Rabbi Eliyahu, the Gaon of Vilna) and the Chabad leaders would do.4

The question of course is, why make such a thick layer in the first place, only to have to find a way to see the stars?

To answer the question, we first have to look at a more basic one. What is the covering all about to begin with? The basic answer is that the walls and roof of the sukkah represent the miraculous “clouds of glory” that surrounded the Jews in the desert for forty years, constantly hovering over them and shielding them from dangers and discomforts as they traversed the Sinai Desert prior to entering the Holy Land.

Throughout the month of Elul and the High Holidays, we work constantly on improving ourselves and returning to G‑d. The holiday of Sukkot celebrates the completion of this work and the assurance of a year full of blessings. This is one of the reasons why we refer to the holiday of Sukkot as “the time of our rejoicing.”

Rabbi Dovber of Lubavitch explains that, in addition to the covering of the sukkah representing the miraculous “clouds of glory,” it also represents this culmination of our refinement process during the month of Elul and the High Holidays.5

This correlation can be found in the verse that states, “And a mist ascended from the earth and watered the entire surface of the ground.”6 Mist ascending from the ground represents the uplifting and refining process of our earthly, not-so-close-to-heavenly actions done throughout the year, until they rise up to heaven and form clouds from which blessed rain pours down upon us.7

It is for this reason that we make sure to have an extra thick covering on the sukkah. It represents a very thick cloud, showing that, not only have we started the process of refining the past year’s earthly deeds, but we are certain that during the High Holidays we have been successful in completely uplifting these deeds and turning them into pristine “clouds.” Now, with our past deeds purified, we are set for a new year full of joy.

Additionally, we hope and pray that this year we merit an additional form of “heavenly clouds,” which are the clouds upon which the Moshiach, at the time of the final redemption, will arrive and gather all of the exiles to the Holy Land.8,9