T hey were the quintessential refugees, victims of a brutal, devastating war with no end in sight. Constantly on the run, they fled from hostile, foreign soldiers and from rampaging, looting brutes who had once been ordinary citizens. In a world gone mad, the small family — husband, wife, and infant — rarely slept two consecutive nights in the same place.

Only one of them slept well.

For the parents, life was unstable and volatile. Their world no longer had any constants. But the child? If one were to ask him at any given moment, Where are you now? his answer would be consistent: In my mother’s arms. The child’s entire world — his reality and his frame of reference — was his mother’s embrace.

This is Rav Chaim Shmuelevitz’s classic mashal to explain how Bnei Yisrael were able to travel in the Midbar for so many years without a previewed or predictable itinerary. How is it possible to be constantly on the move or waiting for a signal to move with no foreknowledge of the path of travel? Does man not have an innate need for security, consistency, and stability? The Torah praises Bnei Yisrael for their faithfulness and fortitude, for embarking on each part of the journey with trust and courage, and for waiting patiently for further instruction. Paradoxically, throughout the journey, it was as if they had settled in one place for 40 years — for their camp had lain in HaKadosh Baruch Hu’s all-encompassing embrace.

This embrace took the form of the Ananei Hakavod, the clouds of glory that enveloped the encampment. The Ananei Hakavod and the hug they represent are so significant that they are commemorated yearly by the succah that becomes our home for seven days. They are also immortalized in the words of Shir Hashirim (2:6), “His left Hand is under my head and His right Hand embraces me.” Rashi elucidates: Hashem supports me from below and embraces me from above, a metaphor for the Ananei Hakavod that encompassed the camp from above and below.

The Arizal famously relates this embrace to the minimum requirements for a kosher succah: two adjoining walls plus a partial wall that is at least a tefach, a fist, in length. These lengths resemble the joints of your arm when hugging a friend: You clasp your friend with your upper arm and forearm (the two walls), and the palm of your hand (the tefach) completes the embrace. Thus the succah is not merely a place that shelters us from the elements; it is a place where we are cradled in Hashem’s Hands.

Gifts in the Desert

When man travels the world and when he journeys through life, his minimal needs are food, water, and shelter. Our Sages (Taanis 9a) enumerate three matanos tovos, beneficial gifts, which were bestowed upon Bnei Yisrael during their years in the Midbar: the mahn; the be’er, or well; and the Clouds of Glory. The mahn fell in the zechus of Moshe, the be’er was in the merit of Miriam, and the Ananei Hakavod were in the zechus of Aharon. 

Rav Hirsch notes that the prophet Michah lists these three leaders in one verse, “I brought you out of the land of Mitzrayim…and I sent before you Moshe, Aharon, and Miriam (Michah 6:4). Then, in a nearby pasuk (Michah 6:8), he mentions three different demands upon the nation, “What does Hashem require of you but to do justice, to love chesed, and to walk modestly with your G-d?” Each of the leaders of the Midbar generation possessed a primary attribute or mission that corresponds to one of these callings and to the associated benefit. Thus Moshe, who taught us the mishpatim, the laws and justice that shape and sustain our lives, is linked to the mahn, the heavenly bread that sustained and nourished the nation. The well, an underground, hidden source of water, is associated with Miriam, who possessed and modeled the womanly attribute of modesty. The Ananei Hakavod correspond to Aharon HaKohein, who personified the middah of ahavas chesed, as he was oheiv shalom v’rodef shalom, he pursued peace and compassionate relationships, oheiv es habrios u’mekorvam l’Torah, he loved others and brought them close to the Torah.

These clouds demonstrated Hashem’s love and compassion, as they fulfilled much more than the basic requirement of shelter. Six clouds formed an insulated environment that provided protection and shade, automatic temperature regulation, illumination, and even leveled the terrain that Bnei Yisrael traveled over. The clouds also served as a means of transportation, a porter of the Jews’ possessions, and a dry cleaner for their clothing. A seventh cloud hovered over the Mishkan and served as the tour guide, or compass, to lead them on their travels. When this cloud moved away from the Mishkan and pointed in the direction they should go, the nation began to travel. They continued following the cloud until it came to rest in a particular place, indicating that they should settle there until the next travel signal.

But the benefits of the clouds went beyond the practical and the physical. Rav Dessler notes that it’s fitting that Aharon, who was set apart from the rest of the nation as Kohein Gadol, is associated with the Ananei Hakavod, because these served as a visible separator between Bnei Yisrael and the other nations. The Ramchal states that the clouds lifted the nation not only above the earth in a physical sense, but spiritually, away from the temptations and impurities of Olam Hazeh. Just as the Kohein Gadol’s designated place was in the Beis Hamikdash, and he entered the otherworldly domain of the Kodesh Hakodoshim, so too did the Ananei Hakavod offer Bnei Yisrael a taste of the kedushah of Olam Haba.

Hashem’s Presence Among Yisrael

A hug makes the recipient feel protected and secure, and it also creates unity between the two parties. So above all, the Ananei Hakavod were a visible manifestation of Hashem’s Presence among Bnei Yisrael. In a tefillah for forgiveness, Moshe describes the camp environment, “You, Hashem, are in the midst of the people, You are seen ayin b’ayin, face-to-face, Your clouds stands over them and You go before them by day in a pillar of cloud” (Bamidbar 14:14). These clouds are termed Ananei Hakavod, the Clouds of Glory, for they mark the presence “face-to-face” of the Shechinah, which is referred to as kavod.

Fascinatingly, the Pirkei D’Rabi Eliezer relates that Adam Harishon was originally clothed in Ananei Hakavod, and he lost this attire when the Shechinah withdrew after his sin. The Shechinah returned to the world in stages, in increasing degrees, marked by the cloud that lingered over the tents of the Avos and the Imahos, descended on Har Sinai, and hovered over the Mishkan.

Thus the clouds indicate Hashem’s presence, and their absence shows His withdrawal. After Cheit Ha’eigel, the Ananei Hakavod disappeared and Hashem indicated to Moshe that a malach would lead Bnei Yisrael through the Midbar, as they no longer deserved the direct stewardship of Hashem. Moshe pleaded, “If Your Presence doesn’t go with me, do not lead us from here. For how shall it be known that I and Your people have found favor in Your eyes? Is it not in that You go with us? In this we shall be differentiated from all the other people on the face of the earth” (Shemos 33:15-16).

The answer came soon afterward: “I will enact a covenant with you. Before you I will perform miracles that have not been done in all the earth nor in any nation, and all those among you will see the work of Hashem that is awesome…” (Shemos 34:10). This awesome manifestation, says the Gra, was the Ananei Hakavod.

Indeed, the Vilna Gaon famously asserts that what we celebrate on Chag HaSuccos is not the Ananei Hakavod per se (which had accompanied the Bnei Yisrael since they left Mitzrayim), but their return, for they were a stunning display of Hashem’s love and reconciliation after Cheit Ha’eigel. It is for this reason that Succos follows Yom Kippur, the day when forgiveness was granted. Furthermore, we are told that the renewed Clouds of Glory were superior to the original ones, for the original ones had been visible only to the leaders of the nation, and these were permanent and visible to all.


Under Hashem’s Shadow

Among the detailed halachos governing the structuring of our succah is the requirement of tzilsa meruba meichamsa, that it must have more shade than sun. The sun is sometimes used as a metaphor for nature. The Akeidas Yitzchak explains allegorically that while we live in Olam Hazeh, we are not subject to natural causes and phenomena, nor should we place our trust in these; rather, we are “under the shade,” under the protection and supervision of HaKadosh Baruch Hu. In this sense, the succah replicates the experience of living “under the clouds” in the Midbar.

Chazal employ the expression of tzila dimheimnusa, the shade of emunah, to describe a succah, which is a temporary dwelling and lacks a solid roof. The paradox of feeling secure in the flimsy succah rather than in our solid homes is unique to Bnei Yisrael. This can be compared to a person who remains behind the barricaded doors of his home for fear of robbers, yet he is still afraid, for locks can always be broken. But when he hears the voice of the king saying, “Come out and join me,” he emerges confidently, for wherever the king is found, bandits are absent.

In a similar vein, Shir Hashirim (1:4) enthuses, “Mashcheini, acharecha narutza, heveani haMelech chadarav — Beckon to me [and] we will run after you, the King has brought me into His chambers.” To Rashi, this refers to the nation’s foray from Mitzrayim into the Midbar, and the inner chambers are the Clouds of Glory.

A Universal Yearning

The poignant plea of mashcheini is a universal yearning that has accompanied Bnei Yisrael on all of our travels — both personal and national — around the globe, throughout Olam Hazeh, and during all the generations. It indicates our desire for movement and growth. We ask the King to draw us out, to pull us away from our Mitzrayim, from the constricted places where we are entrapped, from behind the doors where we are barricaded, from our self-imposed limitations, lethargy, and inertia. Mashcheini means that we know that our teshuvah can culminate in the embrace of the succah. It signifies that we are prepared to move forward, to progress along our life journey, to follow our Tour Guide, to approach Him, reconnect with Him, and be enveloped in His embrace.

The sequencing of mashcheini, to first ask the King to beckon to us and then to promise acharecha narutza, that we’ll eagerly run toward Him, is particularly relevant in the days of Elul. The slightest hint that Hashem is tugging at us and indeed welcomes our approaching Him gives us the motivation and encouragement we need to do teshuvah. This is reminiscent of the sentiment expressed in the verse, “Hashiveinu Hashem eilecha v’nashuva — Bring us back to You, Hashem, and then we will return” (Eichah 5:21).

Rav Shimshon Pincus quotes the poetic words of Rabbi Shlomo Ibn Gavriel in the Rosh Hashanah liturgy, “Evrach mimcha eilecha — I will run from You, to You.” We are not refugees, for we run not away, but toward. Despite our sins and our fear of Hashem’s wrath, there is only one safe place for us. We run back to His welcoming embrace. And even in the most desolate, Midbar-like settings of life, we are not wanderers, but residents. For the Clouds of Glory remind us that we are always invited to reside within the chambers of the King.

Originally featured in Family First, Issue 559. Sources include the writings of Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch, Rav Eliyahu Kitov, Rav Shimshon Pincus, and Rav Dovid Cohen.