“Lord, it is good for us to be here; if You wish, I will make three tabernacles (sukkot) here, one for You, and one for Moses, and one for Elijah,” Peter suggested just before the cloud of glory enveloped the Master, Moses, and Elijah (Matthew 17:4). Before he even finished speaking, a bright cloud overshadowed the trio. Peter, James and John watched in terror as they disappeared in the swirling mist of light and cloud.
In the Torah, the cloud of glory conceals the Shechinah, the Dwelling Presence of the LORD. The same cloud lead Israel in the wilderness, descended on Mount Sinai, and settled upon the Tabernacle. The Torah says, “Throughout all their journeys whenever the cloud was taken up from over the tabernacle, the sons of Israel would set out … the cloud of the LORD was on the tabernacle” (Exodus 40:36-38). When Moses completed the Tabernacle, “the cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of the LORD filled the tabernacle” (Exodus 40:34). At the time of the Temple’s dedication, the cloud appeared and filled the Temple (1 Kings 8:10).
Jewish tradition associates the cloud of glory with the festival of Sukkot because Aramaic translations of the Torah translated the word “sukkot” with an Aramaic word than can also mean “clouds.” The double meaning of the Aramaic word led the sages to interpret the structures of the festival of Booths as symbols for the cloud of glory (i.e., the Divine Presence) that overshadowed Israel in the wilderness. They referred to the festival of Sukkot as the festival of the clouds; specifically, the festival of the cloud of glory. The Talmud records one opinion that the booths (sukkot) in which the Israelites of the wilderness lived were none other than the cloud of glory that went before the hosts of Israel:
Rabbi Eliezer said, “It has been taught: ‘I had the Israelites live in sukkot.’ These sukkot were clouds of glory.” (b.Sukkah 11b)
The story of the transfiguration plays with an old association between sukkot-booths and the cloud of glory.