The Shabbat of “Booths”
Sukkot is a somewhat puzzling festival. To start with, it’s not clear what the role of the sukkah was in the biblical celebration. True, the Torah does say (Lev 23:43) that the Israelites dwelled in these “booths” during their years of wandering in the wilderness following the exodus from Egypt. But elsewhere in the Torah, the festival is generally described as a celebration marking the end of the harvest season. Perhaps as such, it was a time of great joy, for which the harvest booth played a somewhat symbolic role rather than a practical one. (The practical role of the sukkah/booth—as a place to store each day’s crop—was normally associated with the grain harvest, starting half a year before Sukkot. Thus, Boaz inhabits a sukkah in the book of Ruth at the time of the barley harvest.) Some scholars have suggested that the name of the festival was also connected to the booths that were put up by pilgrims arriving at or near the Jerusalem temple to celebrate the end of the harvest season.
The Torah reading for the Sabbath that falls during the festival of Sukkot is also somewhat puzzling—but on a different level. It centers on a passage that should be well known to synagogue-goers at this point, since it was frequently cited in the prayers of Yom Kippur a few days earlier. There, God is said to have gone down to Mount Sinai to meet with Moses:
And He stood alongside him [Moses] there, and proclaimed the name of the Lord. And the Lord passed in front of him and proclaimed: “The Lord, the Lord, a merciful and compassionate God, slow to anger and of abundant kindness and faithfulness, storing up [acts of] kindness for the thousands, forgiving wrongs and transgressions and sins and forgoing punishment” (Exod 34:6-7).
These verses, emphasizing God’s mercy and kindness, were altogether appropriate for the Day of Atonement. But why, among all possible other candidates, should this passage have been chosen to reappear in this week’s Sabbath reading?
I’m not sure I have an answer for that, but I do hope I can clear up one thing, a certain midrash that addresses one question raised by this passage: in what sense can God be said to have “stood alongside him [Moses]” and “passed in front of him”? If God is infinite and omnipresent, why should He be said here to stand next to Moses? Equally troubling, why is God then said to “pass in front of” of Moses—why should He need to pass in front of anyone or anything, and even if so, why should the Torah mention it?
Ancient and medieval commentators proposed various explanations, but perhaps the most radical solution is the one cited in the Babylonian Talmud (Rosh ha-Shanah 17b) in the name of Rabbi Yoḥanan:
If it were not written so [in the Torah], no one would be able to say such a thing! This verse teaches that the Holy One wrapped Himself up like a prayer leader (sheliaḥ tsibbur) and taught Moses what to pray: He said to him, “Whenever Israel sins, let them say the following and I will forgive them: ‘The Lord, the Lord…’” (etc., that is, the 13 merciful traits listed in Exod 34:6-7).
Rabbi Yoḥanan’s explanation is that this passage reveals a particular procedure to be followed when people have sinned. They are to gather together, led by their prayer leader, and recite God’s 13 traits of mercy. If they do so, according to Rabbi Yoḥanan, God has promised to forgive them.
Well, it’s certainly nice to think there was such a divine promise; unfortunately, however, that passage in Exodus doesn’t say anything about assembling for prayer with a prayer leader! Or does it?
It all has to do with the verb va-ya‘avor (“He passed”). The expression “to pass in front of” had acquired a specialized meaning in the Hebrew of the Rabbis: when a prayer leader assumed his duties, he was said to “pass in front of the tevah [the chest in ancient synagogues holding the books of the Torah],” that is, to go to the spot in front of the tevah from which he would then lead the prayers. Sometimes, in fact, the verb “to pass” was used alone as a kind of shorthand to mean “perform the duty of a prayer leader.”
So, when Rabbi Yoḥanan read this passage in Exodus, which reported that God had “passed in front of Moses,” it seemed that it could be saying that God Himself had “passed” in the rabbinic sense, actually wrapping Himself up as a prayer leader in order to show Moses the procedure to be followed. Understood in this fashion, perhaps any public assembly for prayer might rightly think of this divine promise.