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In The Desert Under Clouds And Fire

In The Desert Under Clouds And Fire

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone and chief rabbi of Efrat.

Candlelighting, Readings:
Shabbat Candles: 5:31 p.m.
Torah: Ex. 38:21-40:38; Ex. 30:11-16
Haftarah: II Kings 12:17-13:17
Havdalah: 6:31 p.m.


“And the cloud covered the Tent of Meeting, and the glory of the Lord filled the Sanctuary. And Moses was unable to enter the Tent of Meeting because the cloud rested upon it.” [Exodus 40: 34,35]


What is the significance of the symbol of the cloud, and its twin symbol, fire?

The cloud and the fire are two symbols of the Divine Presence. The cloud is described here as resting on the Sanctuary, and again in the Book of Numbers as directing the Israelites in the desert by day [Numbers 9:15-23]. The fire directed the Israelites in the desert by night and confirmed the Divine acceptance of ritual sacrifices [ibid. Ex. 24:17, Kings 1, 18:38].

Combined these symbols represent the heavens, for the Hebrew word shamayim is comprised of two words, aish (fire) and mayim (water). Water is the stuff that clouds are made of; clouds evoke a protective cover and life-giving rain, symbolizing security as well as growth and development. Moreover, fire expresses the warmth of the sun, which likewise nurtures life and creativity.

There is however yet another message that the Torah conveys by using these two powerful symbols of the Divine Presence. The Torah insists that as long as the cloud rested on the Tent of Meeting, Moses was forbidden from entering it — unless he was expressly summoned by God. Hence the Book of Exodus concludes with Moses’ inability to enter the Sanctuary [Ex. 40:35], and the Book of Leviticus opens, “And God called out unto Moses and the Lord spoke to him from the Tent of Meeting” [Lev. 1:1].

The Midrash goes so far as to declare, “The Holy One, Blessed be He, took hold of Moses and physically brought him into the Cloud.” It explains that there is a small letter aleph at the conclusion of the word vayikra (and He called) to stress that as long as the cloud was in evidence, Moses would require a separate and specific summons from God before he could enter the cloud and stand in the Divine presence.

Similarly, while fire can bring warmth, it can also devour and destroy. One benefits greatly from drawing close to fire but one can get burnt by getting too close. The great Rabbi Eliezer declared, “Warm yourselves by the fire of the Sages, but be careful of the coals lest you be burnt” [Mishnah Pirkei Avot 2, 15]. If this is true of Torah Sages, how much more so must this be true of the Almighty Himself!

From this perspective, the symbols of cloud and fire are warning us to temper our love and desire for closeness to the Divine with reverence and awe that engenders distance. “Serve the Almighty with joyous love, but let there be a degree of trembling in your exaltation” [Psalms 2: 11]. Too much familiarity can lead to a relaxation of discipline. Ecstatic devotion of the moment can sometimes lead one to overlook a religio-legal command. Passion is a critical component of religious piety, but it must be moderated by Divine law or it can run wild. As the Psalmist declares, “Cloud and haze are around Him, so righteousness and just law establish His throne” [Ps. 97: 2].

Moreover, with clouds and fire, the lack of clarity expressed by a cloud (“looking through a cloud darkly”) and the inability to gaze directly into a flame, likewise express one of the deepest truths of the Jewish message: religion is not so much paradise as it is paradox, God demands fealty even in the face of agonizing questions and disturbing uncertainty. Egypt, with its omnipresent waters of the Nile and its unchanging social order of masters and slaves represents certainty; the desert, on the other hand, and especially the rain-expectant and manna-less Land of Israel represents the unknown.

God expects us to have the courage to enter into the abstruse haze, to scale the heights of the unknown, to take the risks of uncertainty in order to act as partners of the Divine. We must attempt to make light from darkness, order from chaos, gardens from swamplands, justice from inequity. And just as the Almighty took a risk, as it were, by creating a human being with freedom of choice, so must we take risks by venturing into the unknown. “I remember the loving kindness of your youth, the love of your engagement years, when you went after Me in the desert, in a land which was not seeded” [Jeremiah 2: 2].

Perhaps only a people who believe in a God who cannot be circumscribed by form or defined by sculpture can have the courage to attempt an adventure whose every step has not been chartered in advance. Perhaps only a nation which has fealty to a God who is profoundly unknowable can enter into a cloud of the unknown. But even if the precise details of the challenge are not prescribed or circumscribed, we do have a Torah which specifies right and wrong ways to pursue our mission.

At the very least, the end-goal is certainly guaranteed, when “nation will not lift up sword against nation, and humanity will not learn war anymore” [Isaiah 2: 4]. “When the knowledge of the Lord will fill the world as the water [from the clouds] will cover the seas” [Habukak 2: 14].

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone and chief rabbi of Efrat.

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