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Sukkot 5764-2003

“The Seven Protective Divine Clouds”

by Rabbi Ephraim Buchwald

The festival of Sukkot acknowledges our profound gratitude to the A-lmighty who watched over our ancestors after the exodus from Egypt during their forty year sojourn in the wilderness. Scripture, in Leviticus 23:42-43, instructs us: “Bah’soo’kot taysh’voo shiv’aht yamim,” You shall dwell in booths for seven days, …“L’mahn yay’doo doro’tay’chem kee bah’soo’kot ho’shahv’tee et b’nai Yisroel, b’ho’tzee’ee o’tam may’eretz Mitzrayim,” so that your future generations should know that I made the people of Israel dwell in booths when I took them out of the land of Egypt.

There is a fundamental debate in the Talmud (tractate Sukkah 11b) over whether the word “sukkah” is to be taken literally or homiletically. Rabbi Akiva maintains that “sukkah” means literally a sukkah–a booth provided by G-d to shelter the people from the scorching heat and the frigid cold of the wilderness. Rabbi Eliezer, however, interprets “Sukkah” homiletically. After all, a sukkah of wood or of cloth with a permeable roof could not possibly protect the people from the harsh elements of the wilderness. Therefore he interprets “sukkot” as clouds of Divine glory, maintaining that the A-lmighty provided a host of clouds to protect the Jewish people.

The rabbis in Midrash Rabbah, Numbers 1:2 elaborate further, teaching that there were actually seven clouds that surrounded the nation of Israel and protected them. Four clouds protected the ancient Israelites from the north, south, east and west, safeguarding them from enemies who attacked from all sides. A fifth cloud, say the rabbis, shielded the peoples’ heads from the burning the sun. A sixth cloud, that traveled in front of the Israelites, cleared the way for them and provided illumination on the road that they were to travel. And finally, a seventh cloud went behind the people, for there were always those too old or too weak who didn’t have the physical or spiritual strength to tolerate the struggles of the journey, and were found straggling on the long and difficult road. The seventh cloud lifted up the stragglers, who could barely stand on their feet, and transported them to their destination.

Rabbi Eliezer’s metaphoric interpretation applies not only to the generation of the Exodus but to all of Jewish history, and is particularly pertinent to our own times. After all, it is only Divine providence that insures our survival throughout the travails of Jewish history. Enemies attack on all sides. And while all the great nations of ancient times have disappeared, the Jews have prevailed, because those Divine clouds that protected and continue to protect the people throughout their long journey.

And yet, there were other periods when it was not the threat of external violence that threatened the Jewish people’s survival. At times it was the light–the bright sun that shone from above during the period of the Golden Age of Spain, the Emancipation and Enlightenment that followed the French Revolution–that “light” threatened and weakened the Jewish identities of large numbers of Jews, many of whom were eventually lost to the Jewish people. But, the A-lmighty, with His fifth Divine cloud, protected us from the “sun,” providing the Jewish community with leaders, teachers, and philosophers who served as shields, as “guides to the perplexed,” to teach the people that they need not be threatened by these new ideas. In fact they learned that they could even spiritually integrate this new information with Judaism and actually enhance their faith.

It was the sixth Divine cloud that lit the road with the enlightenment of Jewish education and yeshivot, to show the challenged Jewish people that there was a bright future for them within their own Jewish heritage. It was that cloud that guided the people to safety and security, even in times of assimilation and integration.

And like those in the wilderness, there are many today who are straggling, who’ve lost strength, who feel abandoned. For them the wilderness is too long and too hard–they can no longer stand on their feet–these are our brothers and sisters, perhaps as many as 4 million American Jews, who, for the most part,have given up their Jewish identities and renounced their connection to Jewish life. For them, we must become the seventh Divine cloud. We need to pick them up, pat their brows, provide them with nourishment–both physical and spiritual, so that they can continue the journey to the Promised Land.

We must make certain that the freedom and openness of America does not lead to an erosion of Jewish life. We must be certain that Jewish education and Jewish literacy become the #1 priorities of Jewish life. We must make certain that our brothers and sisters who are faltering, will be bound up in the bond of the Jewish people. Only then will we legitimately be entitled to celebrate the festival of Sukkot, indeed surrounded by the clouds of the Divine presence.

Happy Sukkot.

May you be blessed.