Updated: Mar 9, 2020
Sukkot is zman simchateinu, the “time of our rejoicing”. The Gemara explains that we are celebrating the miraculous “Clouds of Glory” that protected the Jewish people for 40 years in the desert, providing shelter from the elements, and cover from enemies, as we travelled through the harsh, hostile terrain. On our journey through this world, we encounter harsh and arid conditions, and face great difficulty and adversity. But on Sukkot, we sit in the sukkah, surrounded by G-d’s presence, enveloped in his loving embrace – and we’re reminded that our struggle has meaning, that the harsh, arid wilderness of our existence is, at root, rich and fertile. Ultimately, there is no greater joy in life than the deep realisation that human existence endures beyond the physical, that the lives we lead have eternal Divine significance.
What does it mean to be enveloped by the sukkah?
Sukkot is zman simchateinu, the “time of our rejoicing”. What are we happy for at this time of year? Certainly, having just emerged from the solemn High Holy Days, the Days of Awe, we walk with a spring in our step, please G-d with a clean bill of spiritual health, looking forward to the year ahead with confidence and a renewed sense of purpose. There’s incredible simcha in that. But there’s something very specific we are called on to remember, and celebrate, as we sit in our sukkahs.
The Gemara explains that we are celebrating the Ananei Hakavod, the miraculous “Clouds of Glory” that protected the Jewish people for 40 years in the desert, providing shelter from the elements, and cover from our enemies, as we travelled through the harsh, hostile terrain.
According to one opinion in the Talmud, there were in fact seven different clouds. There was one cloud on the right of the people, one on the left, one in front, one at the back and one above them. A sixth cloud carpeted the ground, smoothing the path underneath their feet, and a seventh went out before them to direct their journey.
The Jewish people were literally ensconced in these mysterious clouds from the time they left Egypt. This fact prompted the Vilna Gaon to ask the question – if Sukkot is about remembering the Ananei Hakavod, this Divine protection in the desert, why don’t we celebrate the festival straight after Pesach, which marks the beginning of our journey into the desert when the clouds first appeared?
The answer to this question puts us on the path to obtaining a deeper, richer understanding of what these “Clouds of Glory” are. The Vilna Gaon explains that it is true that the clouds accompanied the Jewish people as they left Egypt. However, the clouds departed during the incident of the Golden Calf at Mount Sinai, and only returned later, following a process of intense teshuva on the part of the Jewish people that culminated in the construction of the Mishkan, the holy Sanctuary in the desert that was a “resting place” for the Shechinah, the Divine Presence. The clouds then returned on 15 Tishrei, five days after Yom Kippur, which is when we celebrate Sukkot.
The connection between the Ananei Hakavod and the Mishkan is not incidental. The Clouds of Glory were not just about tending to the physical needs of the people; like the Mishkan, they represented G-d’s Presence among the people; the fact that G-d accompanied them on their journey and was close to them.
The verse says: “He [G-d] found them in the desert land, and in the waste of a howling wilderness; He surrounded them, He gave them wisdom and insight and He protected them like the pupil of His eye.” (Deuteronomy 32:10) Rashi tells us that this verse is a reference to the Clouds of Glory, which symbolised G-d’s direct nurturing and protection of the Jewish people, shielding them from the harsh physical forces that confronted them in the desert.
The Midrash expands on this idea, explaining that this “howling wilderness” refers not just to a physical wasteland – a harsh, dry desert. It refers to a spiritual wasteland – a world without G-d’s Presence and bereft of G-d’s wisdom, which entered the world through the revelation at Mount Sinai. And this is why the giving of the Torah at Sinai prefaces the return of the Clouds of Glory.
The word yelal, “howling”, is closely related to the word layla, “night”. And the word tohu, “waste” also means “chaos”. Says the Midrash, before the Torah came into the world, there was chaos and spiritual darkness – a call back to the verse right at the beginning of Genesis that describes a pre-historical, formless world “that was chaos and void, and darkness over the surface of the deep”.
From a certain perspective, we inhabit a world of darkness. From a materialist viewpoint, human beings are a mere accumulation of molecules. Our lives are a constant struggle for survival, battling the elements, and it’s ultimately a futile struggle. Human existence devoid of Divine meaning is pathetic. A world without G-d is a howling wasteland, an anarchic state of nature in which life is "nasty, brutish and short". Because what does it all amount to in the end?
But a world suffused with G-d’s Presence and guided by His Divine will (as revealed in the Torah) suddenly becomes the Palace of the King. And life is meaningful. Our souls were sent into this world to do good, and the good that we do is of eternal value and eternal significance, something untouched by death.
With the giving of the Torah, the Clouds of Glory enter a newly illuminated world. A world lit up with the Divine wisdom of the Torah and with G-d’s Presence. A world that is elevated and meaningful. A world in which our lives have eternal significance.
That could be the deeper meaning behind the term, Ananei Hakavod. They confer honour and glory on the Creator of the universe. But they also confer honour and glory on humanity. They symbolise a world in which our existence has meaning and dignity and eternal value. Lowly human existence is redeemed by G-d’s Presence in the world, and by His Mission that He has given all of us to live in accordance with His will.
This is why, during Sukkot, we focus on the specific miracle of the Clouds of Glory. There were other miracles in the desert: Miriam’s miraculous well of water, for example, or the miracle of the manna that fell from the sky. Neither have their own dedicated Jewish festival. Why? Like the Ananei Hakavod, these miracles ensured the physical survival of the Jewish people in the desert. But the clouds had an added dimension, they ensured not just our physical survival, but our spiritual survival.
Ultimately, the clouds represent the mission of life itself. In a sense, Shavuot – the festival of the giving of the Torah – is about identifying the principles that give rise to human greatness and G-dliness. And Sukkot is about living those principles. Ideally, we live in the sukkah throughout the festival, elevating every aspect of our lives.
Each day of Sukkot, we take the four species, the lulav and etrog, and encircle the bima, the podium in the centre of the synagogue, where the Torah scroll is held aloft as we pray for rain and for all of our basic needs. We encircle the Torah as it is the centre of our lives.
Then, at the end of Sukkot, we celebrate Simchat Torah. On this festival, we proceed around the bima seven times, carrying the Torah; the bima, itself, is empty. Explains Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik, the empty bima symbolises G-d’s Presence. It represents the absence of physical form. On Simchat Torah, as we rejoice in completing another full cycle of the Torah, we put G-d, Himself, at the centre of our existence.
The central message of Sukkot is that life’s meaning – our sense of mission and purpose – is rooted in G-d and His Principles. That is why Sukkot, of all the festivals, is described as zman simchateinu, the time of our rejoicing. There is no greater joy in life than the deep realisation that human existence endures beyond the physical, that the lives we lead have eternal significance.
On our journey through this world, we encounter harsh and arid conditions, and face great difficulty and adversity. But on Sukkot, we sit in the sukkah, surrounded by G-d’s presence, enveloped in his loving embrace – and we are reminded that our struggle has meaning, that the harsh, arid wilderness of our existence is, at its heart, rich and fertile.