Cloud of glory: a d’var Torah for chol ha-moed Sukkot

Here’s the d’var Torah I offered yesterday morning at CBI. (Crossposted to Velveteen Rabbi.)

This Shabbat falls during chol ha-moed, the intermediate days in the midst of the festival of Sukkot. The appointed reading for today (Exodus 33:12–34:26) does make brief mention of Sukkot. Almost at the very end of the parsha we read “And you shall observe the feast of weeks, of the first-fruits of wheat harvest, and the feast of ingathering at the turn of the year.” The feast of weeks is Shavuot; the feast of ingathering is Sukkot.

But mostly this parsha is about something different: a request from Moshe, and God’s intriguing answer.

“If I have found grace in Your sight, show me Your ways,” asks Moshe. And then Moshe adds, “Show me, please, Your glory.”

In response, God says: “I will make My goodness pass before you, and will proclaim My name before you, and I will manifest graciousness and mercy — but no one can look upon Me and live.”

As some of our b’nei mitzvah students would be quick to remind me, God doesn’t “look like” anything — God doesn’t have a body — so what would it even mean to look upon God?

It seems to me that the Torah here is speaking, as it so often does, in metaphor. First, Moshe asks “show me Your ways,” and God is happy to comply; in a sense, the entire Torah is God showing us God’s ways. But then Moshe asks to see God’s kavod, God’s glory. And God says, that’s not possible. Here is one reason why that might be.

Much later in our history, the kabbalists would speak of God as ein-sof, “Without End.” God is infinite, limitless, vaster than our human minds can comprehend. Any human mind which actually expands far enough to encompass all that God is would…crack open, I think. Would be stretched beyond its limits. God is precisely that infinity which we can’t comprehend.

Instead, God gives Moshe a different option: stand in a cleft of rock, and after I pass by, you can see My afterimage. I believe that we can see God’s afterimage all over creation: in our relationships, in our ethical obligations to one another, in moments of transcendence and power in our lives. Each of these is a tiny cellular glimpse of a facet of all of what God is, as in a hologram where each part contains the whole.

Later in the parsha, God tells Moshe to make a second set of tablets out of stone. God descends in a cloud of glory, and proclaims God’s own Name, as we’ve been reciting it all through Yom Kippur! …well, not quite as we’ve been reciting it. The version in Torah goes like this:

Adonai! Adonai! God, Compassionate and Gracious, Slow to anger and Abundant in Kindness and Truth, Preserver of kindness for thousands of generations, Forgiver of iniquity, willful sin, and error, and Who Cleanses (but does not cleanse completely, recalling the iniquity of parents upon children and grandchildren, to the third and fourth generations.)”

— whereas the one we know ends with “…and Who Cleanses,” leaving out the part about visiting the sins of the parents on the children. Our sages call these the Thirteen Qualities (or Paths) of Mercy, and teach that it is through these thirteen paths of mercy that the world is governed and sustained.

Perhaps this Torah portion suits Sukkot because during this week, as we live (or at least eat, drink, and hang out) in our little temporary houses, we are viscerally reminded that we are dependent on these attributes of mercy.

Here’s one more connection between this parsha and Sukkot. This is a teaching from Rabbi Jill Hammer:

The Talmud records an argument between Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Akiva. Rabbi Akiva claims the sukkah represents the real, fragile homes of the Israelites in the wilderness. Rabbi Eliezer, on the other hand, claims that the sukkah represents the clouds of glory, and the hovering protection of the Shekhinah (Babylonian Talmud, Sukkah 11b). In fact, the sukkah holds both of these truths: the fragility of physical life and its abundance, the ephemerality of the spirit and its vast strength.

Our sukkot don’t just represent the temporary huts our ancestors might once have dwelled in during harvest season — or the tents our ancestors might have dwelled in during the 40 years of wandering — but also the clouds of glory and the hovering protecting of the Shekhinah, God’s immanent, indwelling Presence caring for us in our lives.

When we sit in our sukkot and allow ourselves to be fully present, we can experience the cloud of glory — that same kavod, glory, which Moshe asked about but was not able to see. We may not be able to process the infinity of God’s glory with our finite human minds, but when we sit in our sukkot this week, we can experience the merciful presence of Shekhinah. Kein yehi ratzon — may it be so!

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