Sukkot | Bringing Clouds Down to Earth
Updated: Apr 21, 2020
It’s a very special time of year as we are about to celebrate the festival of Sukkot. It’s a wonderful festival and a time of holiness and sanctity for everyone as they enter into their sukkot, their dwellings, with schach, branches, overhead.
As we are sitting in the sukkah and enjoying the sanctity of the space, it’s also important to remember the message and the lessons behind the sukkah.
What does the sukkah represent?
The sukkah represents the fact that after coming out of Egypt, 3320 years ago, we spent 40 years in the desert. During that time we were protected by what our Sages describe as the clouds of glory or in Hebrew, Ananei Hakavod. In the Book of Shemot, Exodus, we are told that a cloud accompanied our people by day and a pillar of fire by night. According to the Talmud, it wasn’t just one cloud; they were surrounded on all sides by clouds and according to one opinion in the Talmud there were seven different clouds – one on the right of the people, one on the left, one in the front, one at the back, one above them and one under the foot, and then a seventh that went out in front to show them where togo. The one under their feet was there because the path was rough and there where ups and downs and sharp stones and so it smoothed the path – they literally walked on clouds which made it easier for them.
We remember these miracles because in the desert the Israelites werecared for. It was no mean feat to cater for more than 3 million people on a daily basis in a hot, burning desert. So great miracles had to occur. Manna fell from heaven, a well of water accompanied them wherever they went, and there were the clouds of glory. The clouds of glory primarily protected them from the elements; the manna provided food, and the well their water. All of their various needs were taken care of in the desert and that’s what we remember. Some of the commentators point out that these miracles in a sense were even more awesome than other miracles in our history because other miracles, however grand they were, took place at a moment – like the splitting of the sea. That was a grand miracle but it took place in a short space of time and was soon over, whereas life in the desert was an ongoing sustained miracle, day after day, for 40 years. And that’s something which is quite awesome.
What is special about the clouds?
What is interesting is that this festival focuses primarily on the miracle of the clouds of glory and not the well or the manna from heaven. What is the real message behind the clouds of glory? According to the Talmud when you are sitting in the sukkah you have to think that you are sitting in the clouds of glory just as our ancestors of old were enveloped by the clouds of glory.
One of our commentators, Rav Mecklenberg, in his book, Haketav V’hakabbalah, points out that whilst there are laws about the walls and the roof of the sukkah, there are no laws about the floor of the sukkah, which is underfoot just as were the clouds of glory. But he then points out that there are some laws that apply to the flooring. One of the requirements of the schach, of the covering above, is that it should provide more shade than sun. The maximum thickness is such that it’s got to allow the rain in; but the minimum is that it should have more shade than sun. How do you measure the shade and sun? The actual halachah, Jewish law, says you measure it by the shade on the floor of the sukkah; which means that even if you have more branches than spaces in the roof but the way that the sun’s rays fall causes the floor of the sukkah to have more sun than shade, then the sukkah is in fact invalid. So there are laws that apply to the floor – it’s the way that weassess the amount of permissible shade and sunlight.
So why is the miracle of the clouds of glory the main focus, and not the manna and the well? Sukkot is the one festival that doesn’t refer to a specific date or event. It echoes events that were ongoing over 40 years in the desert; whereas for example, Pesach, the festival of Passover records an event which took place on the 15th of Nissan and that’s when we celebrate it. Every one of our festivals is linked to a specific historic event and therefore is pinned down to a day. It’s obviously important to bear in mind that Judaism sees the festivals as much deeper than history. History is only valuable in terms of the eternal moral principles that it comes to teach us. We don’t just mark the historical event of the exodus from Egypt, we draw all of the moral principles about the notion and the importance of freedom, of G-d’s great miracles, of the fact that G-d intervenes in history and of His concern about the affairs of mankind.
Questioning the date of Sukkot
Sukkot, as we have said, is the one festival that is not linked to a specific date. It could be at any time of the year, so why do we celebrate it now? We have just come out of Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur and are in the Hebrew month of Tishrei which is filled with holy days. Why did G-d choose to place Sukkot now when He could have made it a few months later? Especially since between now and Pesach there are six months of no Torah festivals. We have Rabbinic festivals like Chanukah and Purim but no Torah festivals between now and Pesach for six months. The Vilna Gaon, one of our leading rabbis of the 1700s, says not only could Sukkot have been at another time of the year but it, in fact, should have been especially if we say that the sukkah is here to remind us of the great journey through the desert after leaving Egypt. This festival of Sukkot should have been just after Pesach because Pesach marks the exodus from Egypt on the 15th of Nissan, after which the children of Israel went into the desert. The clouds of glory first appeared when the people entered the desert. And so says the Vilna Gaon the festival of Sukkot should follow the festival of Pesach immediately because of their historic connection. Although the clouds of glory accompanied the people for 40 years, they started straight after the exodus from Egypt. So why is this festival here and not just after Pesach?
The Vilna Gaon answers the question by saying that it’s true the clouds of glory began to accompany the people as they left Egypt. However, they lost the clouds of glory. After they left Egypt, seven weeks later, they received the Torah at Mount Sinai on the 6th of Sivan. Forty days later they built the golden calf and worshipped it. Moshe came down the mountain on the 17th of Tammuz, saw the people worshipping the golden calf and smashed the tablets as if to say the people are unworthy to receive the Torah. The next day he goes back up the mountain to plead for forgiveness from G-d on behalf of the people. Says the Vilna Gaon : at that point, when the people worshipped the golden calf they lost the clouds of glory because the clouds of glory not only protected them from the elements and provided a barrier of comfort against the harsh environment, but they represented the Divine Presence of G-d. So when the people were close to G-d when they left Egypt the clouds of glory were present because the Divine Presence was with them. When they sinned with the golden calf the clouds of glory left them. Moshe went up the mountain and for 80 days, two sets of 40 days, and pleaded for forgiveness for the people. Then he returned 80 days later with a message of forgiveness from G-d and the symbol of that forgiveness was the second set of tablets. He came back down on the 10th of Tishrei, which is the day we celebrate Yom Kippur – the Day of Atonement, the Day of Forgiveness because of the fact that this was the day that G-d forgave the people for the sin of the golden calf.
Immediately after that they began a fund raising process to put together the materials and the resources needed to construct the tabernacle which would also be an atonement for the sin of the golden calf. They began collecting and started the construction of the tabernacle within a few days of Yom Kippur and it was on that day that the clouds returned. They started the building on the 15th of Tishrei which is the first day of Sukkot. So, says the Vilna Gaon, the reason we celebrate Sukkot which reminds us of the clouds of glory is because Sukkot, which is the 15th of Tishrei – 5 days after Yom Kippur – is the anniversary on which the clouds of glory returned to the people after they had stopped committing the sin of the golden calf.
Surrounded by G-d’s presence
The clouds of glory were not just about tending to the physical needs of the people; they represented G-d’s Presence among the people and the fact that G-d accompanied them and they were living close to Him and close to His Presence. They also represented the fact that G-d gave us His Torah. In the Book of Deuteronomy (32:10), we are told, “He found them in the desert land, and in the wastes of a howling wilderness; He surrounded them, He gave them wisdom and insight and He protected them like the pupil of His eye”. These words are part of the famous song which describes the history and the destiny of the Jewish people. And Rashi says He surrounded them with the clouds of glory. Rashi adds that even at Mount Sinai they were surrounded because according to the Talmud G-d held the mountain above their heads, so in a sense they were surrounded by the events of the giving of the Torah.
There is a passage in the Talmud which says that the phenomenon of the clouds did not only occur with reference to the physical wasteland, the physical desert and the dryness and the harshness of the climate of the desert into which they came to protect the people. It refers also to the harsh wasteland of a world without G-d’s Presence and G-d’s Laws as he revealed them at Mount Sinai. When G-d’s Presence entered the world at the revelation at Mount Sinai and His Principles and Laws entered the world through the Torah at Mount Sinai they were followed by the clouds of glory to hold and protect us as G-d’s Presence and His Torah entered the world. The word Yelal which can mean howling wasteland also comes from the Hebrew word Layla which is night time. And the word Tohu is chaos. And it says that before the Torah came into the world, before G-d’s Presence and His Principles came into the world there was chaos and darkness. That refers to another passage in the Talmud where G-d says, if you don’t accept the Torah then I will return the world to chaos and void referring to those early verses in the Book of Genesis where it says that there was chaos, void and darkness over the abyss.
What is the message? We are being told that on a far deeper level than just the physical these clouds of glory represent G-d’s Presence in the world and His principles that He revealed and His Laws and Rules for how we should lead our lives. The clouds proclaim that without G-d’s Presence and His Laws and Principles human existence is chaos and void; it’s a howling wasteland because it is empty. There is nothing there. There is darkness over the abyss. Because what is a human being? It’s an accumulation of molecules that enter the world and struggle to survive. A baby comes in crying and needs to be looked after, and throughout our lives we struggle to survive and ultimately nobody survives. Human existence devoid of G-d’s Presence and His Laws is pathetic. It’s a physical, lowly world and a howling wasteland with darkness over the abyss because what does it all amount to in the end? But with G-d’s Presence and His Laws this world we live in becomes the Palace of the King. And our souls were sent into this world to do good, and the good that we do is of eternal value and eternal significance and that is untouched by death. This makes human being’s life valuable, worthwhile and meaningful.
The clouds of glory enter this harsh world of the pathetic nature of human existence, to tell that when life is contained within the clouds of glory of G-d’s Presence and His Laws and Principles then it is in fact elevated. That could be the deeper meaning behind the term the Ananei Hakavod, clouds of glory, because Kavod means honour. They give honour to G-d but they give honour, glory and dignity to us human beings. To be contained within these clouds, within G-d’s World and His Wishes, is to live in a world of meaning and dignity and of eternal value. Human existence is redeemed by G-d’s Presence in this world and human existence is redeemed by His Mission that He has given all of us to live in accordance with His Will.
Centre Point of our lives
That is the deeper meaning of Sukkot. The reason we focus on the miracle of the clouds and not the miracle of the well and the manna is that life is not just about looking after the physical needs of people. The clouds represent the mission of life itself. So, in a sense, Shavuot – the festival of the giving of the Torah – is about identifying the principles and theory of human wellbeing; Sukkot is about living them. It’s about the journey through life which is often in harsh and arid conditions and often in the context of great difficulty and adversity. It is the living embodiment of what Judaism is when it comes to life. Everything we do is done within the sukkah and therefore every part of our life is elevated because Sukkot is about life itself. It is about containing all of our lives within the context of the sukkah. And that’s why such an important symbolism of this festival is the fact that we make a procession around the bima. During Sukkot we take the four species, the lulav and etrog, and walk around and around the bima, the central podium in the middle of the synagogue, where the Torah scroll is held as we pray for rain and all of our sustenance needs. We walk around the Torah as it is the centre of our lives.
Towards the end of Sukkot we celebrate Simchat Torah where we conclude the cycle of the reading of the Torah and rejoice. In the earlier days of Sukkot we take our lulav and etrog and walk around the Torah itself. On the last day, Simchat Torah, we proceed around an empty bima seven times carrying the Torah, because that empty bima, says Rav Soloveitchik, represents G-d’s Presence. Its empty to depict the absence of physical form. The symbolism of circles and going round and round is that the whole centre of our existence is G-d’s Laws and Principles and G-d Himself. That is the essence of the human being and the human condition; as human beings our meaning in life, our sense of mission and of purpose come when we are rooted in G-d and in His Principles. That is the central message of Sukkot. That is why Sukkot, of all the festivals, is described as the time of our joy and our rejoicing – to have the sense that human existence goes beyond the physical appearance of what it is and has lofty significance and purpose brings us great joy.