April 21, 2018 |

Clouds of Glory

Jews are a little crazy. So it shouldn't really surprise us that we've decided to build flimsy huts and spend lots of time in them right as the cold fall weather moves in.[1] And it shouldn't surprise that we are waving palm fronds and exotic 'lemons' around either. Regarding both the dwelling in the sukka and the waving of the four species, one MJE participant's conclusion was that the whole thing was "Weird. Awesome, but weird." I can only agree. We Jews are not and don't want to be like anybody else. We are proud of our uniqueness.

But there still is a method to the madness. If you stop to think about it (and I'm doubtful that you have), the fall is a very odd time to celebrate a holiday that commemorates the exodus from Egypt, since we left Egypt in the spring! The Torah says:

"In sukkot you shall dwell for 7 days, every resident of Israel shall dwell in sukkot, in order that you shall know that it was in sukkot that I made the children of Israel dwell in when I took them out of Egypt; I am Hashem, your God." (Lev 23:42-43)

The Torah also specifies explicitly that this Sukkot holiday should happen around October (see Lev. 23:39) EVEN THOUGH it commemorates an event that happened around May. Why?

Well, one way to approach this might be to ask ourselves what exactly were these sukkot in which God made them dwell? The obvious answer - and that of Rabbi Elazar in the Talmud, tractate Sukkot 11b - is that as the children of Israel wandered in the desert, they put up shelters at each encampment. Many people who live out in the open - shepherds, farmers, nomads - build temporary shelters as they move from place to place. Building our own sukkot would remind us of how vulnerable we were when we left Egypt and how much we had to trust God to take care of us in the desert. "I remember the kindness of your youth", says God to the Jewish people via Jeremiah (2:2) "when you went out after me into a waste land." On the other hand, this doesn't seem much like God put them in these sukkot, other than that He didn't provide them with any better shelter.

Thus, Rabbi Akiva suggests that the sukkot mentioned in the Torah were actually the clouds of glory. The clouds of glory, according to our oral tradition, surrounded the Jews on all four sides (to protect them from the wind) above (to protect from the sun) and below (to protect from scorpions and sand). Some say there was a seventh that went ahead of them to smooth out the way. Because the clouds surrounded the Jews on all sides, it was kind of like they were in a moving protective shelter, a desert sukka. To be sure, this is not the usual usage of the word sukka, but it does seem to give weight to a miracle worth commemorating with its own holiday.

On some level, the two great rabbis - Akiva and Elazar - are not arguing the facts. Both agree that there were real sukkot AND clouds of glory. The question is which one of them is the holiday ABOUT? In this regard, it seems that the most striking difference between the two opinions is who makes the sukkot. Are the sukkot commemorations of human endeavor (building sukkot to follow God faithfully in the desert) or divine endeavor (God's miraculous surrounding and protecting us)? Does moving out into a hut in October signify human endeavor, how willing we are to still follow God anywhere He leads us, even out into the cold? Or does it signify divine endeavor, that no matter where we are - settled in beautiful houses or wandering abroad -- God will always take care of us?

But perhaps this is making it too simple. The great R. Elijah, the Gaon of Vilna has an intriguing comment on Song of Songs 1:4 that might find us some middle ground. The Gra (as he is known) is strongly committed to the idea that our sukkot commemorate God's miraculous clouds of glory. However, he is also bothered by why the commemoration is in the fall and not in the spring.

To solve the problem, he suggests that there were two times when the Jews had clouds of glory: once in the spring (when they left Egypt) and once in the fall, when we celebrate sukkot. When the Jews first left Egypt, the clouds accompanied them, protecting them and leading them through the desert. But we have a tradition that those clouds disappeared after the sin of the Golden Calf, when the Jews betrayed God and Moses at Mount Sinai. For 120 days, the Jews lived under the burden of that sin until Moshe brought them forgiveness from God on the day of Yom Kippur.

According to Midrashic sources, Moshe gathered the people of Israel together the very day after Yom Kippur and instructed them on the building of the mishkan, the Tabernacle, God's portable and temporary home. They spent three days in preparation and on the fifth day after Yom Kippur - which happens to be the first day of Sukkot - they began to build the mishkan. It was at this time, says the Gra, that the clouds of glory returned to the people of Israel.

In other words, our sukkot are designed after the SECOND set of clouds of glory, the ones that God provided us in the fall, after we had been forgiven on Yom Kippur. Those clouds of glory would eventually settle on the Tabernacle, signifying God's presence in the midst of the people[2]. According to this reading, the sukka is not only a protective dwelling, but a special sanctuary, a kind of mishkan, a place in which we find and approach the presence of God.

Strikingly, the return of the clouds of glory - though they are God's work - can only be achieved via human endeavor. It was only when the children of Israel began to build God's portable house that their own portable abode - the sukkot of glory - returned to them.

R. Moshe Isserles in his opening comments on the laws of the Sukka (OC 625:1) says "it is a mitzva to fix up the sukka immediately after Yom Kippur, for a mitzva that comes to hand, you should not delay." The exquisite timing of this commandment - and the urgency - is expressed by the time-sensitiveness that just as we are building our sukkot, so were the ancient Israelites building the mishkan.

If Yom Kippur is a sort of trial, a reactive defense to what has already happened, Sukkot becomes a pro-active offensive, eagerly anticipating what is to come. We are the ones who build the future and - even if they are God's clouds of glory - we are the ones who make them re-appear. Human endeavor awakens and releases the Divine flow. Our sukkot of canvas, wood and bamboo inspire and call forth sukkot of divinity, angels' wings and spirituality. May it be God's will that our love and joy of Judaism this Sukkot holiday - represented in our building and dwelling in sukkot and shaking the lulav and etrog - bring forth reciprocal blessings from the Almighty. Chag sameach!

[1] I'm sure it's still hot in Boca, but it's still weird not to be inside with your AC on. J
[2] They lost the clouds of glory a second time when Aaron died.


Rabbi Avi Heller

Joined: July 27, 2007

Originally from Denver CO, Rav Avi received a BA from BU and Rabbinic ordination and an MA in Bible from YU. Before joining MJE, he was Director of Jewish Education at BU Hillel, co-directed the BU Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus and was an Associate University Chaplain. He has been the...

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