Sukkot: A Presence Passing By

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Sukkot

Hag Sameach/ A Happy Holiday!

We’re in the middle of Sukkot, the “Season of our Rejoicing,” and so
the regular Torah reading cycle is set aside for a special Torah
reading appropriate for the holiday. In fact, the Torah is read every
day of the festival, but on the Shabbat of Sukkot, the reading is
Exodus 33:12 – 34:26, which takes place just after the story of the
Golden Calf. There’s a special maftir (concluding reading) and
haftarah as well.

What’s interesting about the reading for the Shabbat of Sukkot is how
the ancient rabbis framed those few verses which actually speak of
the holiday itself. The reading starts in Shemot/ Exodus 33, but it’s
not till chapter 34 that the “Feast of the Ingathering” is mentioned.
The first part of the reading is the story of Moshe returning to God
after the idolatry and violence associated with the Golden Calf:
Moshe goes back to the mountain and admits that he, too, wants to
experience God’s Presence more directly, and begs for a spiritual

God grants Moshe’s request, and in the famous image, puts him into
the cleft of a rock while the Divine Presence passes by. Moshe
doesn’t “see” anything, but hears (experiences?) the Divine
Attributes of forgiveness and mercy. (Cf. 34:6-8, which we sing on
the Days of Awe and other festivals.) The experience seems to last
only a moment, but I cannot doubt that it changed Moshe forever.

So what does all this have to do with Sukkot? One theme that emerges
from both the holiday and the Torah reading is that of temporality.
Things only last a moment; they pass by quickly, and you can miss the
experience entirely if you’re not paying attention.

Notice, for example, how many times the word “pass” (in various forms
of the Hebrew word l’avor) occurs in this narrative:

Verse 33:19: And God answered answered, “I will make all My goodness
pass before you . . . .

Verse 33:22: And, as My Presence passes by, I will put you in a cleft
of the rock and shield you with My hand until I have passed
by. . . . . .

Verse 34:6 The Lord passed before him and proclaimed: “Adonai!
Adonai! a God compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in
kindness and faithfulness. . . . .

You get the idea by now: Moshe’s experience of God’s Presence was a
fleeting moment that quickly “passed by,” leaving behind the
challenge to assimilate what happened and gain its insights. Sukkot,
too, is about recognizing what is both precious and perishable: a
Sukkah is a frail structure, which can be blown apart by the wind and
lasts only a week. We build it, decorate it, rejoice in it- and it’s
gone till next year.

We can despair because beautiful things last only a short time, or we
can strive to be fully aware of the blessing that is available right
now, in the present moment. We can feel God in our lives, but have to
recognize that this feeling (like most other feelings) ebbs and
flows, grows larger and recedes. As I’ve pointed out before- the
challenge is not to have a peak, mountain-top spiritual experience
every day, but to open our hearts to the possibility that God might
be revealed to us at any moment, and then to stay true to that moment
after it passes.

Our Sukkah is fragile and temporary, but its lessons are enduring.
Our sense of the Divine may be fleeting and swift- after all, even
Moshe had to come down from the mountain at some point- but like a
Sukkah, it can focus our attentions on the most real things, which
would go unseen and unfelt if we let them pass by.

with warmest wishes for a joyous holiday,


PS- as usual, you can read the Torah reading in translation here:

PPS: For more about Sukkot in general, you can’t go wrong with

PPPS: If you didn’t see it before, do check out the laws of Sukkot-
Dr. Seuss style:

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