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Sunday, August 28, 2011

Clouds of Honor and Sukkot

בַּסֻּכֹּת תֵּשְׁבוּ שִׁבְעַת יָמִים כָּל-הָאֶזְרָח בְּיִשְֹרָאֵל יֵשְׁבוּ בַּסֻּכֹּת: לְמַעַן יֵדְעוּ דֹרֹתֵיכֶם כִּי בַסֻּכּוֹת הוֹשַׁבְתִּי אֶת-בְּנֵי יִשְֹרָאֵל בְּהוֹצִיאִי אוֹתָם מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם אֲנִי ה' אֱ-לֹהֵיכֶם:

Ye shall dwell in booths seven days; all that are Israelites born shall dwell in booths. That your generations may know that I made the children of Israel to dwell in booths, when I brought them out of the land of Egypt. I am the Lord your God. (Leviticus 23:42-43)

Aside from this secondary reference, where does the Torah state that the Israelites constructed booths in the desert following the exodus?  There is no explicit record of such an event either in Exodus or in Deuteronomy.  Yet, in this passage from Leviticus, it is recalled as if it were a well-known milestone in Israel's early history. This problem likely gave rise to a dispute among the Sages on the meaning of the words כִּי בַסֻּכּוֹת הוֹשַׁבְתִּי in this passage.  An early midrash, in Sifra (Emor 17:11), sets up the opposing views:

לְמַעַן יֵדְעוּ דֹרֹתֵיכֶם כִּי בַסֻּכּוֹת הוֹשַׁבְתִּי אֶת-בְּנֵי יִשְֹרָאֵל בְּהוֹצִיאִי אוֹתָם מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם. רבי אליעזר אומר סוכות ממש היו. רבי עקיבא אומר בַסֻּכּוֹת -- ענני כבוד היו

Rabbi Eliezer’s interpretation, סוכות ממש היו -- these were real, “brick-and-mortar” structures -- is based on a literal reading of this passage, and appears to disregard the lack of an earlier reference to the event.  The identification of סוכות with divine clouds, on the other hand, seems quite non-literal and non-intuitive, even if it refers to something mentioned previously in Exodus, i.e., the “cloud-pillar” which guided the Israelites through their travels in the desert (Ex. 13:21). The clouds which first appeared after the exodus are clearly R. Akiva’s inspiration for reading clouds into this context.  But what real connection is there between “booths” and “clouds” that allows for such a seemingly tenuous identification?  

I will attempt to show that סוכות interpreted as ענני כבוד -- “clouds of honor” -- is strongly suggested by the biblical text, and is not merely the product of free-ranging midrashic creativity.  I will also address the underlying meaning of the clouds.

Our tradition has long taken the booths-as-clouds position.  This interpretation may be familiar from Rashi’s commentary on the Torah (Lev. 23:43); in fact, young yeshiva students may not even be aware of an opposing view.  Rashi’s comment on the phrase כִּי בַסֻּכּוֹת הוֹשַׁבְתִּי is categorical, stated in only two words: ענני כבוד (cf. Onkelos - אֲרֵי בִמְטָלַת עֲנָנִין אוֹתֵיבִית יַת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל).  No allowance is made, as is common elsewhere in Rashi's commentary, for a davar aher -- an alternative explanation.  As it happens, Rashi's position here is consistent with another statement he makes, in his Talmud commentary, taking for granted that “being surrounded by clouds of honor” is the literal meaning -- the peshat -- of the words כִּי בַסֻּכּוֹת הוֹשַׁבְתִּי.  In an offhand remark within a discussion on the maximum height of a sukka (Sukka 2a), Rashi adds the following:

למען ידעו ־ עשה סוכה שישיבתה ניכרת לך, דכתיב יֵדְעוּ כִּי בַסֻּכּוֹת הוֹשַׁבְתִּי ־ צויתי לישב, הכי דריש ליה.  ואף על גב דאין יוצא מידי פשוטו דהיקף ענני כבוד, מיהו דרשינן ליה לדרשה.

We do not normally expect Halakha to weigh in on exegetical problems.  In this case, however, “clouds of honor” has taken on a normative status; it is cited in both the Tur and Shulhan Arukh as the authoritative, and exclusive, reason for the mitzva of sukka (OH 625) .

I stated earlier that outside of Leviticus the Bible makes no mention of booth-dwelling following the exodus.  But from the perspective of the Sages this is not completely accurate.  Some among them did, in fact, see such a reference in a passage from Exodus regarding the Israelites’ first encampment in the desert.  The following midrash (Mekhilta de-Rabbi Yishmael, Bo 14) on וַיִּסְעוּ בְנֵי-יִשְֹרָאֵל מֵרַעְמְסֵס סֻכֹּתָה (Ex. 12:37) cites the dispute mentioned earlier on the word סוכות, quoting the views of the same protagonists, R. Eliezer and R. Akiva.  In this passage, the midrash tries to account for סוכות as a place name:

וַיִּסְעוּ בְנֵי-יִשְֹרָאֵל מֵרַעְמְסֵס סֻכֹּתָה. סוכות ממש דכתיב (בראשית ל״ג:יז) וְיַעֲקֹב נָסַע סֻכֹּתָה, דברי רבי אליעזר. וחכמים אומרים אין סוכות אלא מקום שנאמר (שמות יג:כ), וַיִּסְעוּ מִסֻּכֹּת וַיַּחֲנוּ בְאֵתָם, מה איתם מקום אף סוכות מקום. רבי עקיבא אומר אין סוכות אלא ענני כבוד שנאמר (ישעיה ד:ה-ו) וּבָרָא ה' עַל כָּל-מְכוֹן הַר-צִיּוֹן וְעַל-מִקְרָאֶהָ עָנָן יוֹמָם וְעָשָׁן וְנֹגַהּ אֵשׁ לֶהָבָה לָיְלָה כִּי עַל-כָּל-כָּבוֹד חֻפָּה: וְסֻכָּה תִּהְיֶה לְצֵל-יוֹמָם מֵחֹרֶב וּלְמַחְסֶה וּלְמִסְתּוֹר מִזֶּרֶם וּמִמָּטָר.


Here we have three opinions regarding סוכות, where Israel camped between Ramses and Etam: It refers to real booths (Jacob also built booths, in a different location, and named the place סוכות); it is nothing more than a place name (just like Etam, the next station in the desert); or, in R. Akiva's exegesis of the verses in both Genesis and Leviticus, סוכות are clouds (Isaiah uses the words עָנָן and סֻכָּה in parallel).

Aside from the Isaiah verse cited in the previous midrash, several additional biblical poems use the words עָנָן and סֻכָּה -- or variations -- in parallel, or even within the same phrase.  Here are four additional examples:

  1. יָשֶׁת חשֶׁךְ סִתְרוֹ סְבִיבוֹתָיו סֻכָּתוֹ חֶשְׁכַת-מַיִם עָבֵי שְׁחָקִים (Psalms 18:12; cf. II Samuel 22:12)
  2. פָּרַשֹ עָנָן לְמָסָךְ וְאֵשׁ לְהָאִיר לָיְלָה  (Psalms 105:39)  
  3. אַף אִם-יָבִין מִפְרְשֵֹי-עָב תְּשֻׁאוֹת סֻכָּתוֹ   (Job 36:29)   
  4. סַכּוֹתָה בֶעָנָן לָךְ מֵעֲבוֹר תְּפִלָּה  (Lamentations 3:44)  
Note that the image of clouds and booths (or tents) take on a variety of meanings in these verses.  They are a veil which keeps God hidden from man (nos. 1,3), a canopy spread over Israel for protection (Isaiah 4:5-6 and no. 2), and, in an ironic play on the canopy metaphor, they become a barrier blocking Israel’s prayers after the Babylonian exile (no. 4). They represent heavenly protection (God covering Israel) as well as the distance and mystery of the divine (God covering himself).  But in all of these examples, עָנָן and סֻכָּה echo each other through parallelism and metaphor.  This interplay of images surely contributed to reading כִּי בַסֻּכּוֹת הוֹשַׁבְתִּי as heavenly clouds, especially since הוֹשַׁבְתִּי, "I made to dwell," implies a divinely constructed dwelling.


There is also a very strong contextual link between עָנָן and סֻכָּה in Exodus (12:20-23), within the “pillar of cloud” passage:   

וַיִּסְעוּ מִסֻּכֹּת וַיַּחֲנוּ בְאֵתָם בִּקְצֵה הַמִּדְבָּר: וַה’ הֹלֵךְ לִפְנֵיהֶם יוֹמָם בְּעַמּוּד עָנָן לַנְחֹתָם הַדֶּרֶךְ וְלַיְלָה בְּעַמּוּד אֵשׁ לְהָאִיר לָהֶם לָלֶכֶת יוֹמָם וָלָיְלָה: לֹא-יָמִישׁ עַמּוּד הֶעָנָן יוֹמָם וְעַמּוּד הָאֵשׁ לָיְלָה לִפְנֵי הָעָם:

In this case, the link is based on the interpretive technique of adjoining verses, semikhut pesukim.  Note how the second verse, about the divine cloud, immediately follows the report of the journey from Sukkot to Etam.  I believe this suggested to R. Akiva, possibly more than any other clue, that Sukkot -- the very first station outside of Egypt -- was the location where the cloud first appeared.  Sukkot (the place) of Exodus 12 must have been named for this great providential event; that is, it was called Sukkot in honor of divine clouds, rather than man-made tents which are, after all, absent from the exodus narrative.  And, applying this line of exegesis even further, R. Akiva concluded that בַסֻּכּוֹת הוֹשַׁבְתִּי of Leviticus 23 also refers to divine clouds.  When the Torah tells us that Sukkot (the holiday) recalls “that I made the children of Israel to dwell 'בַסֻּכּוֹת' when I brought them out of the land of Egypt,” it refers quite literally to the event immediately following the exodus from Egypt, i.e., the arrival at a place that came to be known as Sukkot, because of clouds, rather than tents. 

In fact, the linkage between clouds and Sukkot (the place) is already implied in Mekhilta de-Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai (Bo 12), in a passage parallel to the Mekhilta de-Rabbi Yishmael cited above:

 סוכותה.  ר' עקיבה אומ' סוכות ממש עשו להן בסוכות. ר' אליעזר אומ' סוכות ענני כבוד באו וחנו על גגי רעמסס. מושלו משל, למה הדבר דומה? לחתן שהביא אפריון לפתח ביתה של כלה כדי שתכנס לו מיד 

Note the explicit linkage in R. Eliezer's view between the clouds and Ramses, the station immediately preceding Sukkot, where the Exodus began.

(I was pleased to discover that David Zvi Hoffmann takes this overall approach in Das Buch Leviticus, 1906; Hebrew edition, Sefer Vayikra, Jerusalem, 1976, v. 2, pp. 206ff.)

Now that we have established a textual connection between tents and divine clouds, here are some thoughts on the meaning of "clouds of honor":

The ענני כבוד of the Sages are based on biblical imagery that we have cited above, but only on a subset of those images.  The clouds imagined by the Sages are intimate and protective rather than numinous or glorious. They represent the Shekhina in its familiar, maternal form.  These are not the same clouds which descended on Sinai accompanied by fire and thunder, or which filled the Tabernacle and Solomon's Temple when each was dedicated.  When God appears in a cloud, the Bible often calls his presence 'כְבוֹד ה (e.g., Ex. 16:10, 24:17, 40:34).  The King James Version translates this phrase as the "glory of God."  But the ענני כבוד of the Sages are different.  Rather than a symbol of God's overwhelming glory, they are a sign of God's honor and love for Israel.

The Mekhilta (Petihta Beshalah) states that the pillar of cloud was a widely visible display of affection designed to honor Israel in the eyes of the nations - כך הודיע הקב״ה חבתן של ישראל לאומות העולם שהוא בעצמו הלך לפניהם שיהיו נוהגים עמהם בכבוד.  Therefore, we may conclude that the "כבוד" in ענני כבוד belongs to Israel, rather than to God.  For this reason I have translated this term as "clouds of honor" rather than "clouds of glory."  (The contrast between glory and honor is wonderfully illustrated in the KJV's dual translation of כבוד within a single biblical verse, Prov. 25:2: כְּבֹד אֱלֹהִים הַסְתֵּר דָּבָר וּכְבֹד מְלָכִים חֲקֹר דָּבָר - KJV: "It is the glory of God to conceal a thing: but the honour of kings is to search out a matter").

The Midrash associates the clouds of honor with parental and even romantic imagery from the Bible. With imagery drawn from the Ha'azinu poem, the Sages portray God enveloping Israel in the desert as a mother or father shields a young child:

(Deuteronomy 32:10)  יִמְצָאֵהוּ בְּאֶרֶץ מִדְבָּר וּבְתֹהוּ יְלֵל יְשִׁמֹן יְסֹבֲבֶנְהוּ יְבוֹנֲנֵהוּ יִצְּרֶנְהוּ כְּאִישׁוֹן עֵינוֹ 
(Bemidbar Rabba 2:6) יְסֹבֲבֶנְהוּ - שהקיפן בענני כבוד

Using an even more intimate metaphor, the Sages compare the clouds to the surrounding embrace of the male lover in the Song of Songs (2:6; Midrash Zuta, ed. Buber, 2):

שְֹמֹאלוֹ תַּחַת לְרֹאשִׁי. אלו ענני הכבוד שהיו מקיפים את ישראל מלמעלה ומלמטה

In yet another midrash (Shir Ha-Shirim Rabba 2) on the same verse, סוכות and clouds are again tied together, though here the divine clouds are imagined in Israel's future rather than its past:

שְֹמֹאלוֹ תַּחַת לְרֹאשִׁי, זו סוכה, וִימִינוֹ תְּחַבְּקֵנִי, זה ענן שכינה לעתיד לבא הה"ד (ישעיהו ס') לֹא-יִהְיֶה-לָּךְ עוֹד הַשֶּׁמֶשׁ לְאוֹר יוֹמָם וּלְנֹגַהּ הַיָּרֵחַ לֹא-יָאִיר לָךְ. מי מאיר לך? (שם) וְהָיָה-לָךְ ה' לְאוֹר עוֹלָם.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

"A Wise and Understanding People"

וּשְׁמַרְתֶּם וַעֲשִֹיתֶם כִּי הִוא חָכְמַתְכֶם וּבִינַתְכֶם לְעֵינֵי הָעַמִּים אֲשֶׁר יִשְׁמְעוּן אֵת כָּל-הַחֻקִּים הָאֵלֶּה וְאָמְרוּ רַק עַם-חָכָם וְנָבוֹן הַגּוֹי הַגָּדוֹל הַזֶּה: כִּי מִי-גוֹי גָּדוֹל אֲשֶׁר-לוֹ אֱ-לֹהִים קְרֹבִים אֵלָיו כַּה' אֱ-לֹהֵינוּ בְּכָל-קָרְאֵנוּ אֵלָיו: וּמִי גּוֹי גָּדוֹל אֲשֶׁר-לוֹ חֻקִּים וּמִשְׁפָּטִים צַדִּיקִם כְּכֹל הַתּוֹרָה הַזֹּאת אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי נֹתֵן לִפְנֵיכֶם הַיּוֹם

Keep therefore and do them; for this is your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the nations, which shall hear all these statutes, and say, surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.  For what nation is there so great, who hath God so nigh unto them, as the Lord our God is in all things that we call upon him for?  And what nation is there so great, that hath statutes and judgments so righteous as all this law, which I set before you this day?


In its simplest reading, this passage (Deuteronomy 4:6-8) states that knowledge of the mitzvot will naturally elicit admiration for Israel from the nations.  It thus presumes that the commandments have a universal, even self-evident, quality.  It is as if to say: When it comes to the Torah, what’s not to like?  

But, in reality, the idea that the world can easily identify with our laws is not at all obvious.  In fact, we have been taught from an early age that the moral barriers between Israel and the nations are too high to overcome.  When God offered the Torah to each of Israel’s neighbors, as we know from the oft-repeated midrash, they rejected it as fundamentally incompatible with their core beliefs and practices.  

This latter view may have led some of the Sages to minimize the scope of the verses above.  For example, Rabbi Shmuel (Shabbat 75a) attributes the “wisdom and understanding” of this passage to one particular aspect of the law, astronomical/calendrical calculation. Such wisdom is undeniably universal:

אמר רבי שמואל בר נחמני אמר רבי יוחנן: מנין שמצוה על האדם לחשב תקופות ומזלות? ־ שנאמר (דברים ד) ושמרתם ועשיתם כי היא חכמתכם ובינתכם לעיני העמים. איזו חכמה ובינה שהיא לעיני העמים? ־ הוי אומר זה חישוב תקופות ומזלות

Mastery of astronomy -- an empirical, objective science -- will surely impress the nations. But particularistic laws, such as Shabbat and kashrut, could never achieve the same result.

The Rambam, on the other hand, has a maximalist reading of these verses.  He cites them in the Guide of the Perplexed (III:31) within an impassioned argument for the existence of intelligible reasons for all the mitzvot, including the hukkim.  After all, he says, the hukkim are singled out in this passage:

. . . The sole object of the Law is to benefit us. Thus we explained the Scriptural passage, "for our good always, that He might preserve us alive, as it is this day" (Deut. 6:24). Again, "which shall hear all those statutes (hukkim), and say, surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people" (ibid. 4:6). He thus says that even every one of these "statutes" convinces all nations of the wisdom and understanding it includes.  But if no reason could be found for these statutes, if they produced no advantage and removed no evil, why then should he who believes in them and follows them be wise, reasonable, and so excellent as to raise the admiration of all nations? But the truth is undoubtedly as we have said, that every one of the six hundred and thirteen precepts serves to inculcate some truth, to remove some erroneous opinion, to establish proper relations in society, to diminish evil, to train in good manners or to warn against bad habits.

This view suits a medieval rationalist such as Maimonides, with his full confidence in the rational basis of the mitzvot.  Since the ta’am of every mitzva is based on some universally accepted good, it is only natural that the mitzvot display “wisdom and understanding” that can be universally acknowledged.  

It is interesting to contrast this view with that of the Netziv (R. Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin, Ha'amek Davar, Deut. 4:6).  Like the amora R. Shmuel, he too narrows the subject of these verses, but in a different way.  For the Netziv, they refer to the Oral Law, i.e., the Talmud.  The Oral rather than the Written Law, he says, will one day be seen as the defining achievement of the Jewish people in the eyes of the world, as the logic and methodology of the Oral Law -- this, according to the Netziv, is how one should interpret the word hukkim -- are clearly the product of Israel’s “wisdom and understanding.” The ever-expanding Talmud, even more than the written Torah, will bring honor to the Jewish people:

As you continuously add to the abundance of the (Oral) Law, over and above the Written Law, the nations of the world will be amazed (to discover) how expansive and exalted is (the Oral Law), due to the wisdom and understanding of Israel.