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Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Clouds of glory, clouds of honor

That future generations may know that I made the children of Israel live in booths (sukkot) when I brought them out of the land of Egypt  -- Leviticus 23:43.

‘Booths’ --  clouds of honor (ananei kavod) -- Rashi.


Every year on the first night of Sukkot, I was taught from a young age that the Sukkah -- especially the sekhakh, the Sukkah's ceiling -- represents something otherworldly. The structure in which our family dined was meant to evoke the divine clouds that sheltered the Israelites in the desert.

But, in fact, the definition of “booths” was the subject of debate by the Tannaitic Sages. One opinion took them to be real huts, erected for shelter from the sun; the other, in a metaphorical reading of the verse from Leviticus, identified the booths with the biblical “cloud-pillar” -- also known in the Talmud and Midrash as “clouds of honor” -- that guided and protected the Jews throughout the exodus.

It may seem far-fetched to read “booths” as divine clouds. “Clouds” and “booths” are hardly synonymous. One could also argue, on the other hand, that the literal interpretation is undermined by the fact that this reference in Leviticus is the only explicit record of booth-dwelling by the Israelites. The heavenly cloud-pillar, in contrast, appears repeatedly in the Torah from Exodus onward.

In fact, the link between sukkot and ananei kavod is supported by two separate streams of textual evidence. First, there are several instances where the Bible uses the word sukkah -- literally, a covering or canopy -- in poetic references to God’s presence, hidden behind a screen of clouds. Furthermore, the phrase “when I brought them out of the land of Egypt” suggests some connection between the sukkot in this verse and events which took place during the early history of the Exodus. Sukkot, as it happens, is also a place name. As recorded in Exodus (13:20-22) and noted there by the Jerusalem Targum, Sukkot -- the Israelites’ first station outside of Egypt -- was where the divine clouds first appeared. So, in a non-literal but strongly suggested reading of Leviticus, the sukkot in which God sheltered the Israelites were none other than the divine clouds which first accompanied them at Sukkot.

If we dwell in booths on Sukkot to recall the divine clouds of the desert, the question becomes why this holiday is the appropriate time for such a commemoration.

Throughout the Bible, clouds are a common manifestation of God’s presence. At the revelation on Sinai, Moses disappears into a cloud on the mountain. In the desert, the cloud-pillar guides the Israelites and descends regularly either to speak with Moses or to mark the next station. God’s glory (kavod) appears in a cloud at the dedication of the Tabernacle and again at the dedication of Solomon’s Temple, in each case preventing entry into the sanctuary. This cloud is not an ethereal mist; it is a tangible presence that can be overwhelming.

But the word kavod has a dual meaning in the Bible; it is alternatively translated -- at least in the King James Version -- as “glory” or “honor,” depending on the context. Generally, “glory” is used to describe the divine presence, whereas “honor” denotes respect shown to humans. This is best illustrated in the KJV's rendering of a single verse in which kavod is used twice, in both senses: "It is the glory (kavod) of God to conceal a thing, but the honor (kavod) of kings is to search out a matter" (Proverbs 25:2).

The divine clouds of Sukkot -- identified by Rashi with the ananei kavod of the Sages -- are of a different nature than the clouds of glory. The Sages understood that there was not only one cloud-pillar, but seven -- six in each direction to shield the camp and one to lead the way forward. A midrash compares the clouds with a bridal canopy prepared by the groom, and goes so far as to associate them with imagery from Song of Songs (2:6) -- “His left hand was under my head, his right arm embraced me.” These clouds are intimate and nurturing; they envelop and protect as would a parent or a lover. The clouds of Sukkot are clouds of honor, rather than clouds of glory.

Sukkot is celebrated in the wake of the Days of Awe, a season of encountering divine glory. On Rosh Hashanah, we acknowledge God’s majesty over creation and His role in history. The shofar invokes the clouds of Mt. Sinai, where God’s glory was most clearly manifest; the shofarot prayer begins, “You revealed yourself in your cloud of glory on your holy mountain.” And on Yom Kippur, we confront the finitude of human life and contrast our physical and moral flimsiness with an infinite, glorious God.

When Sukkot arrives, our relationship with the divine is transformed. While we remain awestruck and thankful for the fruit harvest, yet another sign of divine glory, we are primarily preoccupied with immediate and distinctly human anxieties related to the imminent rainy season and the coming onset of the cold, dark winter. On Sukkot, we beg for human honor and human dignity -- not to be overpowered by divine glory, but to be sheltered under divine wings.  Under the Sukkah’s canopy, God honors man.

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