One of the major Biblically-mandated festivals is Sukkot, which literally means “shelters.” It is a week-long celebration, during which one is obligated to “dwell” in a sukkah.

In shelters you shall dwell for seven days. Every resident among the Israelites shall live in shelters, in order that your [future] generations should know that I made the children of Israel live in shelters when I took them out of the land of Egypt.1

But why would this be cause for a major annual festival? After all, it is natural to make shelters when traversing the desert. As permanent homes were not possible, temporary shelters were the logical choice. Why the holiday?

Moreover, the verse states that G‑d “made the Israelites live in shelters,” but if the people built the shelters out of necessity, why would they be attributed to an act of Heaven?

The Talmudic sages were onto these questions, and they suggested that the shelters don’t refer (only) to tents and lean-tos, but to the clouds of glory that the Almighty provided for the Israelites during their 40-year sojourn.2

But, how does that explanation bring us any closer to understanding why the gift of the clouds of glory merits a major week-long festival year after year? After all, the Torah mentions many gifts that G‑d accorded the Israelites during their long stay in the desert, including manna from heaven to eat and water from Miriam’s Well to drink. Yet we do not mark those sustained miracles with any holiday!

Why So Lax About the Walls?

Another major question regarding the sukkah: According to Jewish law, a sukkah is kosher with just two-and-a-bit walls. While it is preferable for the sukkah to have four walls, it is not strictly necessary. But if the sukkah is intended to commemorate the clouds that encompassed the Israelites, surely it should surround the person from all sides, just like the clouds?

Moreover, the term sukkah primarily refers to the covering above. The strict laws about the nature of materials that are kosher for use only apply to the s’chach, the roof of the sukkah. By contrast, the walls may be made of any material. But if the sukkah commemorates the clouds that surrounded the Israelites, surely the walls should be governed by the same strictures!

Not All Clouds Are Created Equal

With stunning creativity and attention to detail, the Rebbe uncovers a key insight into the reason for sitting in the sukkah and the Sukkot festival. Perusing the Midrashic texts and Rashi’s commentary to the Torah, one will see that sometimes the term “clouds of glory” is used,3 while at other times it simply refers to “clouds.”4 Why is this? Is there a difference between the two?

The Rebbe explains that there is indeed an important distinction. “Clouds of glory” refer to those clouds whose entire purpose was to honor the Israelites with a visible manifestation of the Divine Presence. They were, as their name implies, intended to bring “glory” to the Children of Israel. However, when the term “clouds” is used alone, it refers to the many practical services they provided, such as shielding the Israelites from the harsh desert climate and protecting them from violent attacks. Those functions were not for the purpose of “glory,” but to enable them to survive in the wilderness.

The utilitarian clouds surrounded the Israelites from all four sides. By contrast, the “clouds of glory” hovered above them.

What Do We Recall on Sukkot?

The regular clouds were provided to ensure the Israelites’ survival, and thus G‑d was obligated, as it were, to provide those, since He had led them into the danger zone in the first place. They were nothing to celebrate, just like Miriam’s Well and the manna.

However, the additional clouds of glory were entirely extra and a symbol of unbounding Divine love. In recognition of that loving gesture, we observe a festival in which we enter a sukkah, representing the embrace of our loving Creator and Protector.

It is now clear why only the covering of the sukkah – the s’chach – has to consist of specific materials (while the walls can be made from anything). Because the festival exists to commemorate the clouds of glory that hovered above the Israelites, it is primarily these clouds that the holiday memorializes.

For the same reason, it is not strictly necessary for the sukkah to have four walls, as the walls of the sukkah are not intended to represent the clouds that surrounded the Israelites. Those regular clouds served a mundane (albeit vital) purpose, and were not the main reason for the Sukkot festival.

We can now better understand why the Kabbalists tell us that the sukkah is akin to G‑d’s embrace, as expressed in the verse “His right hand embraces me.”5 Indeed, the whole idea of Sukkot is to remind us that we are continually in G‑d’s warm embrace, enveloped by His infinite love. The world can be a harsh place, but wrapped in G‑d’s arms we can be sure of His continued guidance and protection.

Adapted from Likutei Sichot, vol. 18, Parshat Chukat III.