Clouds of glory, clouds of honor

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.

When we were young, many of us were taught that the sukkah – especially its essential covering – represents something otherworldly. The structure in which we were dining was meant to evoke the divine clouds that sheltered the Israelites in the desert.

The definition of “booths” was, in fact, debated by the Tannaitic sages. One opinion took them to be real huts, erected for shelter from the sun; the other identified them 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” metaphorically as divine clouds. “Clouds” and “booths” are hardly synonymous. We could also argue, however, that the more 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, 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. There are several instances where the Bible uses “sukkah” – literally, a covering or canopy – in poetic references to God, who is hidden behind a screen of clouds. Furthermore, the phrase “when I brought them out of the land of Egypt” suggests a direct connection between the sukkot in this verse and events that took place during the early history of the exodus. Sukkot, as it happens, is also a place name. As implied in Exodus (13:20-22) and underlined by the Jerusalem Targum, Sukkot – the Israelites’ first station outside of Egypt – was the place where the divine clouds first appeared. So, in a nonliteral but strongly suggested reading of Leviticus, the sukkot in which God sheltered the Israelites were none other than the divine clouds that 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 right time for such a commemoration.

Throughout the Bible, clouds are a common manifestation of God’s presence. At the revelation on Mt. Sinai, Moses disappears into a cloud on the mountain. In the desert, the cloud pillar guides the Israelites and descends regularly 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. These clouds are not ethereal mists; they are tangible.

But the word kavod has a dual meaning in the Bible; it is alternatively translated as “glory” or “honor,” depending on the context. Generally, “glory” is a divine quality, whereas “honor” denotes respect shown to humans. The distinction is best illustrated in the King James Version rendering of a verse where 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 – the sages’ ananei kavod – are of a different nature than the clouds of glory. The sages multiplied the singular cloud-pillar by seven, with six clouds shielding the camp in each direction and one leading the way forward. One midrash compares the clouds with the bridal canopy prepared by a groom, and another 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, whose religious experience is one of encountering divine glory. On Rosh Hashanah, we acknowledge God’s majesty over creation and in history. The shofar invokes the clouds of Mount Sinai, where God’s glory was manifest most clearly: “You were revealed in your cloud of glory to your holy nation.” And on Yom Kippur, we confront the finitude of human life and contrast our moral shallowness with an infinite God.

When Sukkot arrives, our relationship with the divine has changed. While we are thankful for the harvest, yet another sign of divine glory, we are preoccupied with distinctly human anxieties related to the imminent rainy season and the dark winter. On Sukkot, we ask for human honor and dignity: To be sheltered under divine wings, rather than overpowered by divine glory. Under the sukkah’s canopy, God honors man.