Shabbat – a sukkah in time

We are reminded of the Talmud’s teaching that the Sukkah represents the ananei hakavod, the miraculous “Clouds of Glory” that protected the Jewish people for 40 years in the desert.

Lauren Hoffmann covers her and her son Asa’s eyes during their Shabbat dinner in San Antonio, Texas in February (photo credit: REUTERS/CALLAGHAN O’HARE)
Lauren Hoffmann covers her and her son Asa’s eyes during their Shabbat dinner in San Antonio, Texas in February
(photo credit: REUTERS/CALLAGHAN O’HARE)
Entering the sukkah is like walking into another world. The ambience is truly unique. It is cozy and intimate. There are earthy fragrances that are bracing and refreshing. You feel present, at peace, connected, safe. You feel calm and centered, speaking a little softer, a little more gently. You feel, in some sense, held.
As we look around us and up at the s’chach (covering for the sukkah), we are reminded of the Talmud’s teaching that the Sukkah represents the ananei hakavod, the miraculous “Clouds of Glory” that protected the Jewish people for 40 years in the desert, providing shelter from the elements as we traveled through the harsh, hostile terrain.
According to one opinion in the Midrash, there were in fact seven different clouds. There was one cloud on the right of the people, one on the left, one in front, one at the back and one above them. A sixth cloud carpeted the ground, smoothing the path underneath their feet, and a seventh went out before them to direct their journey.
The verse says, “He [G-d] found them in the desert land, and in the waste of a howling wilderness; He surrounded them, He gave them wisdom and insight and He protected them like the pupil of His eye” (Devarim 32:10). Rashi tells us that this verse is a reference to the Clouds of Glory, which symbolized God’s direct nurturing and protection of the Jewish people, shielding them from the harsh physical forces that confronted them in the desert.
While we sit in our sukkah, we meditate on that divine protection. But it goes one step further. The Midrash explains that this “howling wilderness” refers not just to a physical wasteland, a harsh dry desert. It refers to a spiritual wasteland, which is a world without God’s presence and bereft of His wisdom. A world without meaning and direction. In this empty world, life is merely a struggle for survival; a struggle, ultimately, all of us end up losing.
The Clouds of Glory, however, are a reminder that we live in a world lit up with the divine wisdom of the Torah and luminescent with God’s presence. A world that is elevated and meaningful. A world in which our lives have eternal significance.
On our journey through this world we encounter harsh and arid conditions, and face great difficulty and adversity. But on Sukkot, we sit in the sukkah, surrounded by God’s presence, enveloped in his loving embrace – and are reminded that our struggle has meaning, that the harsh, arid wilderness of our existence is, at root, rich and fertile.
What the sukkah is to space, Shabbat is to time. When the sun goes down on Friday afternoon, and those candles are lit, we enter a different world. A world sheltered from the storm raging outside; a comforting, protective cocoon. It’s a world of faith and family, connection and community, peace and tranquility.
Shabbat gives us a sense of togetherness in a world of fragmentation; a sense of calm in a world of unrelenting pressure; a sense of connectedness in a world where we are constantly besieged by electronic communication, and by the unceasing demands of the working world.
Into the maelstrom of our 21st century lives, Shabbat enters as a protective space of tranquility – an opportunity to really live. Shabbat enables us to momentarily set aside the distractions, demands and pressures of daily life – offering us the time and space to renew our inner selves, and to revisit and reinvigorate our most important relationships. Shabbat can hold us together in a society where everything seems to be pulling us apart.
A unique tranquility and intimacy permeates the home on Shabbat. No one has to answer the phone or rush off. No one is distracted by the screens of information and entertainment that saturate our world. We are left with a remarkable, uninterrupted haven of love and connection, which allows us to appreciate and focus on what we have in our lives.
ON A day in which many of our routines are restricted – going to work, writing, cooking, driving cars, turning on lights, and activating electrical appliances, among other things – we discover that these restrictions are actually liberating; that it is the things we can’t do on Shabbat which create this nurturing environment of love and connection.
When we step into a sukkah, we become enveloped in its unique ambience and protection, and when we step into Shabbat, we draw over us a canopy of peace and harmony. The connection is, in fact, made explicit in a special prayer we recite on Friday night in which we ask God to spread over us His “sukkah/canopy of peace.” Every week we have this opportunity to step into another world, a world which nurtures us, and protects us from the howling wilderness.
It is this nurturing power of Shabbat – this calm and respite it affords us from the chaos of the week – that is the reason the Shabbat Project has been so compelling to Jews of all walks of life.
This year, about three weeks after Sukkot, Jews of all backgrounds in more than 1,500 cities and 100 countries across the globe will once again gather together in one giant sukkah in time – and draw a canopy of peace over the entire Jewish world.
The writer is the chief rabbi of South Africa and founder of the international Shabbat Project, taking place November 15-16, 2019.