A tradition as long and rich as Judaism inevitably contains opposing trends regarding some major issues. A case in point is asceticism, severe abstinence from the pleasures of the body and this world.
Yet although both ascetic and anti-ascetic motifs have always been present in Jewish thought, for faithful Jews in the modern world, the anti-ascetic path — attempting to serve God while enjoying the world legitimately — is the only realistic option. We try not to escape the physical world but to sanctify it.
Yom Kippur is the ascetic festival par excellence. Eating, drinking, marital relations, wearing of leather shoes and bathing are prohibited. We can manage all these restrictions, and indeed find them spiritually uplifting, for one day, but we cannot live like this on a permanent basis. We need to descend from the rarified ascetic heights of Yom Kippur to the no less sacred task of serving God through the material world, through eating, drinking, marital relations and observing God’s laws in those areas. But how do we come back down to earth after Yom Kippur?
It is Succot which guides us gently back into the physical world. It bids us to eat, drink and enjoy the world, but not quite fully. We celebrate not in our warm, comfortable homes but in the ascetic surroundings of the succah, with no proper roof and not much elbow room. Only after this experience do we reach Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah, when we leave the succah and wholly re-enter normal life, enjoying the legitimate pleasures of this world back in our houses, back down to earth, uplifted and ennobled by the whole exhausting yet exhilarating experience of Tishri.