Monday, October 01, 2007

Clouds of Glory: God's Sukkot, God's Shekhinah

[Clouds, rainbows, and a pillar of smoke - Die Bucher der Bibel, by Ephraim Moses Lilien]
Rows and floes of angel hair
And ice cream castles in the air
And feather canyons ev'rywhere
I've looked at clouds that way....
I've looked at clouds from both sides now
From up and down, and still somehow
It's cloud illusions I recall
I really don't know clouds at all

As we are celebrating the hag/holiday of Sukkot, I thought I might devote an entry to the popular and recurrent motif of the ananei ha-kavod, the “Clouds of Glory.” What does this have to do with Sukkot? Well, in the Tosefta we read concerning the Israelite’s time in the desert:

God gave to [Abraham's] children seven clouds of glory in the desert, one to their right, and one to their left, one before them, and one after them, and one above their heads, and one as the Shekhinah that was in their midst. And the pillar of cloud would precede them, killing snakes and scorpions, burning brush, thorns and bramble, leveling hillocks and raising low places, and making a straight path for them, a straight continuing highway, as it is said, “The ark of the covenant of the Lord traveled in front of them...and the Eternal's cloud kept above them by day... Num 10:33-34.” ( Sotah 4:2).

But this doesn't make sense; didn’t we dwell in huts (sukkot) for the journey in the wilderness? Seems there is a controversy:

R. Eliezer says: They were real sukkot. R. Akiba says: The sukkot were the clouds of glory (Sifra to Leviticus, Emor 17:11)

This reads sort of like a conversation between Carl Sagan and Timothy Leary. Eliezer, the rationalist, restates the obvious. Akiba, on the other hand, seems to pull this idea out of a hallucinogenic cloud of his own. But it turns out the ever-mystical Akiba actually has some exegetical ground to stand on:

He made darkness His screen; dark thunderheads, dense clouds of the sky were His sukkah round about him (Ps 18:11-12)

Can one, indeed, contemplate the expanse of clouds, the thunderings from His sukkah? (Job 36:29)

OK, these read poetically; clouds as metaphor for God’s shelter, but the link is clear: clouds = God’s ‘sukkah’. Akiba just takes it a step further, making the equation that if clouds are God’s sukkah, then the sukkot that God caused us to dwell in:

You shall live in sukkot seven days; all citizens in Israel shall live in sukkot, in order that future generations may know that I made the Israelite people live in sukkot when I brought them out of the land of Egypt, I the Eternal your God (Lev 23:42-43, all translations based on NJPS)

…were also clouds! And supernatural clouds to boot, cloud of the Kavod, of the divine glory. These clouds had supernal letters written on them, serving as banners for each tribe (MdRI, Bo 14; Pesik. R. 20; Targum Shir ha-Shirim).

But these clouds were not just reserved for Israel’s use as sukkot. When God becomes manifest on earth, clouds obscured what was happening (Ex. 19-21; Job 22:13; Ex. 19; Lev. 16:2). Angels too manifested themselves as cloud; most famously the pillar of cloud that guided the Children of Israel during the day on the Exodus alluded to above (Ex. 13:21, 14:19-24).

Rabbinic tradition goes to designate a cloud as a sign of the Shekhinah, the feminine Divine Presence (Gen. R. 1:6; 1:10). Such clouds hovered over the tents of the matriarchs (Gen. R. 60:16). Moses ascended into heaven to receive the Torah enwrapped in clouds (Men. 29b; Shab. 88b-89a).

Even after the entry into the land, a pillar of cloud became manifest over the altar of the Temple on Yom Kippur, and its appearance was an augury of the future (Yoma 21b). The presence of these clouds diminished and eventually disappeared due to the accreted sins of Israel. Bar Nifli, “son of a cloud,” is a title for the Messiah, who will appear riding one, according to the Book of Daniel (7:13). Virtuosos of Kabbalah, such as Moses Cordovero, sometimes had pillars of cloud appear over or around them (Sefer ha-Hezyonot).

Thus it becomes clear from all these images that the clouds of Glory are multivalent in their mythic significance – having viewed sukkot from both sides now (with apologies to Ms. Mitchell) they (and clouds) symbolize divine presence (specifically the feminine divine presence), but also divine protection and favor, along with God's love and salvation.

Zal g'mor - to learn more about Jewish mythic traditions, read the Encyclopedia of Jewish Myth, Magic, and Mysticism:http://www.amazon.com/Encyclopedia-Jewish-Myth-Magic-Mysticism/dp/0738709050


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