The Torah explains the mitzva to dwell in the sukka for seven days: “In order that future generations may know that I made the Israelites dwell in sukkot when I brought them out of the land of Egypt, I the Lord your God” (Vayikra 23:43). There is a disagreement in the Mishna as to what is meant by “sukkot.” According to R. Eliezer, they refer to the clouds of glory (“ananei ha-kavod”) that sheltered Israel in the wilderness; according to R. Akiva, they refer to the actual booths in which the Israelites dwelt when they left Egypt (Sukka 11b). Both positions can be supported by the verses:
Now when Pharaoh let the people go…they set out from Sukkot [i.e., they had built sukkot] and encamped at Etam, at the edge of the wilderness. The Lord went before them in a pillar of cloud by day, to guide them along the way, and in a pillar of fire by night, to give them light, that they might travel day and night. The pillar of cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night did not depart from before the people [i.e., they were protected by the clouds of glory]. (Shemot 13:17, 20-22)
In the opinion of R. Akiva, the mitzva of sukka commemorates the booths that Israel built to shelter themselves from sun and rain, reminding us of our humble beginnings, when God took us out of Egypt and led us from slavery to freedom, and when we wandered in the wilderness for forty years, sheltering in temporary booths to protect us from the sun and rain, without houses or inherited estates. By commemorating this, we will thank God for bringing us to the good and spacious land, a land where we could build homes and plant trees. Remembering our humble accommodations in booths helps ensure that the bounty of the good land will not cause us to become arrogant and forget God. Rather, we will recall that all is in His hands; He gave us the strength to conquer and settle the land, to eat its fruits and be satisfied by its bounty (Rashbam, Vayikra 23:43). This commemoration also redounds to the credit of Israel, who followed God into the uncultivated wilderness (Rabbeinu Baḥya ad loc.).
In the opinion of R. Eliezer, the mitzva of sukka commemorates the great miracle that God performed for Israel by providing clouds of glory to protect and guide them in the wilderness, as we read, “The Lord’s cloud kept above them by day, as they moved on from the camp” (Bamidbar 10:34). The clouds of glory expressed God’s love for us. Not only did He provide us with all our needs in the wilderness for forty years, with manna, quail, and the well, but His Shekhina also dwelt in our midst, and He covered us with clouds of glory, sheltering and protecting us (Ramban, Vayikra 23:43). The Sages state, “There were seven clouds of glory with Israel…one in each of the four directions, one above, one below, and one in front, clearing the way for them” (Mekhilta De-Rashbi, Shemot 13:21; Sifrei, Be-ha’alotekha 83). They further state that due to the merit accrued by Israel in following God into the wilderness, He enveloped them in clouds of glory (Zohar III 103b).
A cloud both reveals and conceals. On one hand, it is an expression of the Shekhina, but at the same time it conceals the intense divine illumination so that we can absorb it gradually. This is how God reveals Himself to us. First, He radiates a powerful illumination upon us, but since it is too powerful for us to comprehend, He masks it, so the light reaches us in accordance with our ability to absorb it. It is like the sun, which provides the world with energy, but since we cannot withstand its intensity, God created the atmosphere to protect us from its rays. This idea is alluded to in the verse (Tehilim 84:12), “For the Lord God is sun and shield.” (See Tanya, Sha’ar Ha-yiḥud Ve-ha’emuna, ch. 4.)
The sukka’s sekhakh also alludes to this. Physically, it protects us from most of the sun’s light, but it is not completely impenetrable, so that we can enjoy the light. Spiritually as well, the sekhakh protects us from most of the “enveloping light” (or makif) revealed on Sukkot, allowing us to absorb it according to our abilities (below, section 7).