First Day of Succot
October 11, 2003
Zechariah’s vision, found in haftarah for the first day of Sukkot, is entirely eschatological (dealing with the end of time). It opens with a vision of God’s saving power in the war over Jerusalem and the ultimate recognition by the nations of the world that God rules over the entire world: “And the Lord will be king over all the earth; in that day the Lord will be one and His name will be one.” (Zechariah 14:9) Preceding this mass recognition of God, God’s judgment against those who seek to bring harm to Jerusalem is to be accompanied by an odd state described by Zechariah in these words: “And it shall come to pass in that day, that there will not be light, but heavy clouds (yekarot) and thick (v’kepaon).” (verse 6)
The unclear nature of the two Hebrew words noted in this translation have prompted a number of different interpretations. Rashi, following the lead of Targum Yonathon, describes this period of divine judgment as one of darkness: “this time is one of cold, darkness and clouds..” This interpretation is suggested by the word “v’kepaon” which Rashi associates with the Hebrew word for “frozen or floating – kafoi” and as a consequence views the period before the ultimate redemption as one of darkness and cold. Rabbi Meir Malbim, the 19th century Polish commentator, interprets this verse contextually. Since the following verse (verse 7) speaks of the promise of light at the advent of the divine redemption, he explains verse 6 in a similar manner: “For at that time the light of the sun and the moon will cease in the world… there will no longer be physical light [in preparation for the spiritual light which will be part of the redemption.]”
The Talmud has a lengthy discussion of the meaning of these two words: “What is the meaning of ‘yekarot’ and ‘kipaon’? Rabbi Elazar said: ‘This refers to light that is precious (yakar) in this world (Rashi: sunlight) and insignificant (kafoi) in the world to come [since it will be unnecessary].’ Rabbi Yochanon said: ‘These words refer to the laws of Negaim (laws of leprosy affliction) and Ohalot (laws of corpse impurity) which are difficult (precious – yakar) to understand in this world but will be simple (kafoi) in the world to come.’ Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi said: ‘This refers to people who are esteemed in this world but will be inconsequential in the world to come.’ This last interpretation is related to a story which happened to Rav Yosef, the son of Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi. He was sick and became unconscious. When he returned to consciousness, his father asked him: ‘What did you see?’ Rav Yosef responded: ‘I saw the world inverted, that which is on top in this world is down below in the world to come and that which is below is on top in the world to come.’ Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi told his son: ‘You have seen things clearly [Rabbeinu Hananel: the truth]…” (adapted from Pesachim 50a)
These sages draw a distinction between the contemporary situation which is not ideal (yakar) and the future which will be (kafoi). Rabbi Elazar yearns for spiritual light; Rabbi Yochanon, for intellectual enlightenment; and Rabbi Yehoshua been Levi, for social justice. Sukkot has traditionally been the season when we especially yearn for the messianic redemption. May the goals of these sages be fulfilled.