And Rabbi Ḥiyya bar Abba also said that Rabbi Yoḥanan said: Had there been left open a crack so much as the size of small sewing needle in the cave in which Moses and Elijah stood when G-d’s glory was revealed to them, as it is written: “And it shall come to pass, while My glory passes by, that I will put you in a cleft of the rock” (Exodus 33:22), and: “And he came there to a cave…and, behold, the L-rd passed by” (I Kings 19:9–11), they would not have been able to endure due to the intense light that would have entered that crack, as it is stated: “For no man shall see Me and live” (Exodus 33:20).
“The L-RD went before them by day in a pillar of cloud, to lead them the way; and by night in a pillar of fire, to give them light.” – Exodus 13:21, JPS 1917 Tanach
When B’nei Yisrael was seemingly ensconced at the Sea of Reeds, as the Egyptian army approached, “the angel of G-d, who went before the camp of Israel, removed and went behind them; and the pillar of cloud removed from before them, and stood behind them; and it came between the camp of Egypt and the camp of Israel” (Exodus 14:19-20, JPS). Thus protection was assured to B’nei Yisrael, sheltered by the Cloud, and illuminated by the Pillar of Fire (synonymous with the angel of G-d); yet, the Egyptians remained in darkness.
After crossing through the Sea of Reeds, the Cloud of Glory continued to shelter B’nei Yisrael in the journeys through the wilderness, and the pillar of fire continued to provide illumination at night. During Sukkot, we remind ourselves of the existential nature of these journeys, by dwelling in temporary structures known as sukkoth, similar to the makeshift tents that provided shelter from the physical elements for B’nei Yisrael in the wilderness. Yet, on another level, these structures are meant to remind us of the Clouds of Glory that sheltered the Children of Israel.
In reviewing the parashas, I was struck by the use of a word, very similar to the Hebrew word, sukkah. Both words share two common letters in their shoresh (root word), the letters shin and kof. The word sukkah, basically means, tent or booth, as per the temporary structures built in the wilderness journeys. The word sakoti means cover or covering, and is found in the following verse: “And it shall come to pass, while My glory passeth by, that I will put thee in a cleft of the rock, and will cover [sakoti] thee with My hand until I have passed by” (Exodus 33:22, JPS). So, perhaps this is at least one connection found to Sukkot in this parashas chosen as the reading.
What might this similarity imply? In the context of the pasuk (verse), H’Shem’s hand, figuratively speaking, shields Moshe from His brilliance, thereby protecting him from the overwhelming glory of H’Shem.* One might say that H’Shem’s hand serves as a temporary sukkah, encompassing Moshe, while He passes by; yet, surely, some of the brightness of H’Shem is still visible to Moses, since a hand would not serve to totally encapsulate and block the light. This is comparable to the skach, the roof of a sukkah that leaves visibility of the stars and sky above.
Moshe received a fuller revelation of H’Shem at that time; he also heard the thirteen attributes of mercy proclaimed as “H’Shem passed by before him” (34:6, JPS). These are the same attributes of mercy that are recited in the prayers for the holidays. We seek H’Shem’s mercy, not only in anticipation of forgiveness, leading up to Yom Kippur; additionally, according to the Zohar, we may still seek His mercy through repentance, prayer, and charity until the the gates are completely closed for the year’s decrees on Hoshannah Rabbah – the seventh day of Sukkot.
*According to Ibn Ezra, some commentators translate kappi (hand) as clouds. Thus the rendering is that the cloud covered Moses, in like manner as the Cloud of Glory, symbolized by a sukkah.
“The covenant made between G’d and the people at the time did not only include the generation which was an eye-witness to the revelation but that it included all the subsequent generations of Jews throughout the ages.” – R’ Bachya, on Deuteronomy 5:1, sefaria.org
“Future generations who were not present at the time this covenant was made will consider it binding for themselves and conduct themselves accordingly.”
“Face to face the L-RD spoke to you on the mountain out of the fire.”
– Deuteronomy 5:4, JPS 1985 Tanach, sefaria.org
According to Sforno, the words פנים בפנים that are translated above as “face to face,” may be rendered, ”I have spoken to you revealing many different facets of Myself” (Sforno, on Deuteronomy 5:4, sefaria.org). Thus, perhaps, we may infer that this may be understood as a prooftext for the midrash (textual interpretation), concerning how it is “as if” the L-RD appeared at Sinai to the Children of Israel, like a many-faceted diamond, figuratively speaking, like a “vision within a vision” (R’ Bachya, on Exodus 33:11, sefaria.org).
The teaching inferred from this metaphor, for, indeed, there is no image that can be made of G-d, is that the Words of the L-RD that day were heard by the ears of the multitude of Israel at Sinai, according to the capacity of each individual to receive what was being said. Thus, we have a model, for the manner that we are able to receive the words of scripture today, as if each individual may receive what needs to be learned for the edification of the soul; consequently, this is like receiving a personalized message from G-d.
“In the second year, in the second month, on the twentieth day of the month, that the cloud was taken up from over the tabernacle of the testimony.”
Numbers, 10:11, JPS 1917 Tanach
B’nei Yisrael had been encamped at the base of Mount Sinai for ten days under a year. When the Cloud lifted up from above the encampment, that was the signal to journey to the next location. “And the cloud of the L-RD was over them by day, when they set forward from the camp” (Numbers 10:34, JPS 1917 Tanach). Thus, did the Children of Israel move out in the formation that was previously established for them.
First the tribe of Judah, then, as they began to march, the tabernacle would be disassembled, and placed in the care of the three Levite families. Two of the families followed the tribe of Judah; the third Levite family followed the tribe of Reuben. The rest of the tribes followed in formation behind them. “Whenever the cloud was taken up from over the Tent, then after that the children of Israel journeyed; and in the place where the cloud abode, there the children of Israel encamped” (Numbers 9:17, JPS). By day also He led them by a cloud, and all the night with a light of fire (Psalm 78:14).
Let us consider how G-d’s Presence guided the B’nei Yisrael, during the wandering in the desert. “Thou goest before them, in a pillar of cloud by day, and in a pillar of fire by night” (Numbers 14:14, JPS). This points toward H’Shem’s role in our lives to guide us in the right direction, to be a compass in an uncertain world, and a light in the darkness, as well as a refuge from the tumults of life. Appropos of the times, the day speaks of the necessity to turn towards the Creator, whose words are better than silver and gold (Psalms 19:1-5, Proverbs 8:19).
“And moreover I have heard the groaning of the children of Israel, whom the Egyptians keep in bondage; and I have remembered My covenant.” – Exodus 6:5
A covenant was made with Abraham, many years before his descendants entered Egypt: “And He said unto Abram: ‘Know of a surety that thy seed shall be a stranger in a land that is not theirs, and shall serve them; and they shall afflict them four hundred years” (Genesis 15:12-13, JPS 1917 Tanach).
H’Shem sent Moshe, whom He spoke to at the burning bush: “‘I have surely seen the affliction of My people that are in Egypt, and have heard their cry by reason of their taskmasters; for I know their pains; and I am come down to deliver them out of the hand of the Egyptians.” (Exodus 3:7-8).
For H’Shem heard the cry of His people; he “descended to rescue them from the hand of the Egyptians” (Exodus 3:8, Complete Jewish Bible, chabad.org). Such is His love for His children, that he “descended to rescue them.” Even though, He is thought of in Talmudic thought as sitting on His throne in Seventh Heaven, He heard our cries from there.
The Talmud further explains that He can even hear the penitent whisper prayers in the synagogue: for He is not only transcendent; He is also immanent. This explains to some degree how He can be the Master of the Universe, as well as the One who effects miracles to release His people from bondage.
“And the angel of the L-RD appeared to him in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush; and he looked, and, behold, the bush burned with fire, and the bush was not consumed.”
Exodus 3:2, JPS 1917 Tanach
While tending to a stray sheep in Midian, Moses encountered the burning lowly thornbush. G-d humbled himself by appearing within the form of the lowly thornbush, as if to say that He understood the suffering of Israel, represented by the thornbush itself. The thornbush was in flames; yet, was not consumed. Symbolically, this phenomenon represented the nisyanos (troubles) that Israel endured, without succombing to destruction.
When Moses began to step closer towards the burning bush to investigate, he was commanded to refrain from doing so, “Do not come closer to here, remove your shoes from your feet, for the place upon which you stand is holy ground” (Exodus 3:5). By removing his shoes, Moses was being shown that at this juncture in his life, he was to fully commit to the mission G-d chose for him without any reservations (R’Hirsh).
Figuratively, it was required of him to recognize where he stood, as a person, in relationship to G-d. He had been born a Hebrew, grew up as an Egyptian in Pharaoh’s palace, and spent at least forty years as a Midianite shepherd. The “holy ground” that he stood upon was the soil of his deepest roots.
When G-d appeared to him within the burning lowly thornbush, there was a sanctity of the present moment, wherein Moshe accepted his role, on H’Shem’s terms, not his own. We too, are called, each and every day to seek the vision of G-d that He intends for us: for “whosoever shall call on the name of the L-RD shall be delivered” (Joel 2:32, JPS 1917 Tanach).
Is the time drawing near for the sea to part? Is the Geulah (Redemption) at hand? The sages, in all of their sharp acuity, draw a parallel between the First Redemption, and the Final Redemption: akin to plagues that devastated Egypt, before the exodus of the Children of Israel, so will many plagues, even more than those inflicted upon ancient Egypt, precede the final redemption. This is gleaned from the following verse: “As in the days of thy coming forth out of the land of Egypt, will I show unto him marvellous things” (Micah 7:15, JPS). Could the modern day plague of the coronavirus be a foreshadowing of the Messianic Age?
The current exile (galus) of the Jewish people began almost two thousand years ago, when the second Temple was destroyed by the Romans. We were dispersed amongst the nations, as we still are today to some degree. Even though the state of Israel was renewed in 1948, without the Third Temple, we are technically still in exile. This is one reason why we proclaim every year, at the end of our Passover seder, “Next Year in Yerushalayim.” In essence, this does not refer to having the opportunity to fly to Israel via El Al Airlines, in order to make aliyah to our Biblical homeland. Rather, this alludes to the Geulah (Redemption), when Moshiach will reign from Jerusalem.
At that time, “peace on earth,” in all of its splendor will prevail over the unruly forces, that have no interest in recognising G-d’s sovereignty. Needless to say, we are only witnessing the beginning of these forces to potentially impact society in an unprecedented way; the road has been paved ever since the Age of Enlightenment, when the Deity of Reason was worshipped, to the diminishment of a focus on G-d, and religious values. This set the background for the French Revolution.
Behind the facade of a higher cause, these forces hold sway over any godless movement, whose roots are deeper than its claims to higher ideals, human rights, or “power to the people.” It is interesting to note, that as a result of the Bubonic plague of the 14th Century in Europe, “some historians believe that society subsequently became more violent as the mass mortality rate cheapened life and thus increased warfare, crime, popular revolt, waves of flagellants, and persecution” (Wikipedia). As far as I know, excepting self-flagellation, this seems to ring true today, in the face of COVID-19. “If we do not learn from the past, history will repeat itself.”
Am I overconcerned with the state of affairs in the world, and, more specifically, in America today? Others are apparently even more concerned. “In a normal month [Nefesh B’Nefesh] receives several hundred to a few thousand calls,” yet, this past June the Jewish organisation that promotes aliyah from the U.S. to Israel received 25,000 calls (VosIzNeias). For myself, I would only take that step, if and when I would hear the call from H’Shem, as has been mentioned by several fellow Jews in the not so recent past, concerning intuition from Above. Yet, the call to teshuvah, in and of itself, is primary; and, may be viewed the in light Hillel’s adage, “It’s not where you are, but how you are.” And, “if not now, when.”
“And thou shalt bethink thyself among the nations, whither the L-RD thy G-d hath driven thee, and shalt return unto the L-RD thy G-d.”
“The L-RD called unto Moses, and spoke unto him out of the tent of meeting.”
– Leviticus 1:1, JPS 1917 Tanach
After the Mishkan (portable tabernacle in the wilderness) was built, H’Shem called to Moshe from within the sanctuary, where His presence resides above the Ark of the Covenant, between the two golden cherubim on the cover of the Ark. What is notable about this invitation to Moshe is that “Moses could never enter the Tabernacle without first having obtained permission to do so” (Sforno, commentary on Exodus 24:16, sefaria.org).
Sforno references the pasuk (verse), wherein Moshe is called to enter into the Cloud of Glory, while previously on Sinai, before the building of the Mishkan. “And the glory of the L-RD abode upon mount Sinai, and the cloud covered it six days; and the seventh day He called unto Moses out of the midst of the cloud” (Exodus 24:16). The comparison alludes to the similarity between Sinai and the Mishkan. The Mishkan (tabernacle) became the dwelling place of H’Shem’s presence, as the Targum clearly states in its specificity:
“And it was when Mosheh had completed to erect the tabernacle that Mosheh reasoned and judged in his heart, and said: To Mount Sinai, whose excellency is the excellence only of an hour and its holiness the holiness but of three days, I could not ascend till the time that the word was spoken to me; but the excellence of this the tabernacle of ordinance is an eternal excellency, and its holiness an everlasting holiness; therefore is it right that I should not enter within it until the time that I am spoken with from before the L-rd.”