The Torah reading for the intermediate Shabbat of Sukkot tells of the aftermath of the sin of the Golden Calf. Moses has been able to intercede with God and save the people from annihilation, but God has also told Moses He will remove His presence from the Israelite camp for the remainder of their journey to the Promised Land.
The reading begins at the point at which Moses again intercedes with God, seeking to secure God’s full pardon and return God’s presence to the camp. As a result, God reinstates the covenant and instructs Moses to prepare a second set of tablets on which God will inscribe the Ten Statements to replace the ones Moses had broken.
What does this have to do with Sukkot? This passage does contain the first, brief reference to the three pilgrimage festivals, just mentioning Sukkot (“the feast of ingathering at the turn of the year”). But there’s more. In the passage from Vayikra read on the first two days of Sukkot, God says that Israel is to observe the festival of Sukkot “in order that future generations may know that I made the Israelite people live in booths (sukkot) when I brought them out of the land of Egypt.”
The Talmud records the debate between Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Eliezer about the nature of these booths. Rabbi Akiva said they were actual booths, but Rabbi Eliezer said they were an’ninei kavod, clouds of glory that protected the Israelites on their journey.
If Rabbi Eliezer is correct, why do we commemorate these sukkot in the fall rather than at Pesach time; after all, the an’ninei kavod, which the rabbis associate with the pillar of cloud, were first given to the Israelites when they left Egypt. Why wait six months to acknowledge them?
The Vilna Gaon explains it this way: It’s true that the clouds of glory were given to the Israelites when they left Egypt, but following the sin of the Golden Calf, they were taken away. According to traditional rabbinic chronology, it was on Yom Kippur, 10 Tishrei, that God pardoned the people for their sin by granting them the second tablets. On the 11th, Moses gave the people the commandment to build the Mishkan (the portable sanctuary); on the 12th and 13th, the materials were donated and collected; on the 14th, the craftsmen received the materials from Moses. On the 15th of Tishrei, construction on the Mishkan began, and the clouds of glory were returned.
Therefore, that’s the day the Torah tells us to observe Sukkot, to mark the return of the clouds of glory. Sukkot, like Yom Kippur, marks God’s forgiveness and so we read the passage in which God teaches Moses the Thirteen Attributes, which describe God’s merciful nature.
Still, why commemorate the restoration of the clouds of glory rather than the original gift? Perhaps because when they were first given at the time of the Exodus, the clouds of glory were given solely as a gift by God and accepted passively by the people.
Similarly, the first tablets were made solely by God and given to Moses. The second set were carved by Moses and inscribed by God, an act of partnership signifying the brit, the covenant between God and Israel.
We celebrate Sukkot in Tishrei because the an’ninei kavod were restored as a result of Israel’s repentance, requiring the participation of both human beings and God. And so, Sukkot becomes a celebration of brit, a realization that we need God, but that God also, as it were, needs us.