“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.