Leviticus 23:42-43 commands Jews to dwell in booths during the festival of Sukkot so “future generations may know that I (God) made the Israelite people dwell in sukkot when I brought them out of the land of Egypt.” Rabbi Eliezer’s interpretation of the word sukkot in that passage (Babylonian Talmud, Sukkah 11b) has become the normative Jewish understanding: “These were the Clouds of Glory.” The Clouds of Glory, first referenced in Exodus 13:21, are understood to be a kind of “cloud box” that encased and protected the Israelites during their trek through the wilderness to the Promised Land. According to a midrash (Mekhilta de-Rabbi Yishmael, Parashat Be-Shalah, Prologue), “there were seven clouds: four on each of their four sides, one above, one below, and one that went before them.” Sukkot, then, celebrates God protecting the Israelites in the wilderness.
So why this one particular miracle over any of the others? The answer, it seems, is that the Clouds of Glory embody the wilderness experience as a whole. On the simplest level, this means that, in addition to commemorating the clouds, Sukkot commemorates all the miracles God performs for the Israelites in the wilderness, like the manna and miraculous wellsprings of water.
On a deeper level, though, the forty-year sojourn in the wilderness was crucial for the moral development of the fledgling Israelite nation. A midrash observes that “God did not bring them to the Land of Israel the easy way, but through the wilderness. God said, ‘If I bring Israel now to the Land, everyone would immediately take hold of his field or his vineyard, and they would refrain from following the Torah. Rather, I will cause them to circle around in the wilderness for forty years, so that they will eat manna and drink from the wells of water and the Torah will become part of their body.’” In other words, the wilderness experience was intended to inculcate in the Israelites the value that they served a purpose higher than acquiring land, property, comfort, and wealth. Their charge was to follow the Torah and to illuminate the world through its light.
The wilderness experience, in this sense, was like a pregnancy, incubating the Israelites before they entered the physical world, the world of embodied, landed nationhood. Spending forty years in the wilderness (parallel to the forty weeks of healthy human pregnancy) helped ensure that the Israelites would be born mature, able not only to survive on their own as a nation, but also to flourish in achieving God’s highest hopes for them. Seen in this light, the Clouds of Glory are akin to a Divine womb, protecting the Israelites as they grew into this national maturity.
On Sukkot we annually go back into the womb, precisely to reconnect with the kind of people we were always meant to be: a people not defined by or committed to our possessions, but a people committed – in the very fiber of our being – to serving God, to living a life of Torah, to making the world a fit dwelling place for the Divine.