As we conclude the book of Exodus and wander further into the wilderness, I cannot help but wonder how different the children of Israel’s lives would have been if they had been equipped with GPS. You will pardon my flippant tone, but this week we once again encounter the fire and cloud that serve as a supernatural guide and guard for the children of Israel:
When the cloud lifted from the Tabernacle, the Israelites would set out, on their various journeys; but if the cloud did not lift, they would not set out until such time as it did lift. For over the Tabernacle a cloud of the Lord rested by day, and fire would appear in it by night, in the view of all the house of Israel throughout their journeys (Exod. 40:36–38).
Beginning with their journey from Succoth to Etham, the fire and cloud served as the escort for Israel throughout their wanderings (Exod. 13:20). We will leave aside the particulars of the route, but I wonder if my GPS brought me such a circuitous way, would I keep letting it tell me, “Left turn ahead?” Why would the Israelites need such a pyrotechnic guide? Would not a simple trail of breadcrumbs to follow, or nice red brickwork, like Boston’s Freedom Trail, suffice?
Much ink has been spilled seeking the real purpose of the fire and cloud. Directly before our verses above, we read “the Presence of the Lord filled the Tabernacle” (Exod. 40:34–35). We encounter examples of the Presence of the Lord concealed in cloud and fire throughout the Tanakh. On occasions, it descends onto the tabernacle (Num. 12:5) and regularly when Moses is to receive revelation (Num. 33:8–11). The Presence of the Lord concealed in cloud even appears to the entirety of the people (Exod. 16:10; Num. 14:10, 16:19, 17:7), most notably when God descends upon Sinai (Ex. 24:15), and in our parashah.
As they appear in all the instances above, the fire and cloud are intimately connected to the Presence of God—serving as either a physical manifestation of the actual Presence of God, or “the attendant signs of God’s terrifying and overwhelming power” (Weinfeld, Deuteronomy and the Deuteronomic School, 201). We can believe that at this point in the history of the Israelites, a clear manifestation of the Presence of God served as a reassurance that God was with them. And it must have been a vision to behold.
The Etz Hayim Humash takes this thinking a step further and sees the expressions of fire and cloud as representing two distinct modes of relating to God. Expressing a theology of encounter, the fire, with more definite form and substance, represents acute interaction with God. In Biblical terms, these are moments of revelation; in our lives they are birth, marriage, death, and other times when we feel the immanence of God. On the other hand, the cloud expresses a theology of presence, the continuing relationships we develop through parenthood, marriage, and mourning (572). The two pillars illustrated that God was with them at the moments of theophany, and through the rest of their wandering.
Although presented as opposites, at one time encountering God as the burning fire and at another living with God’s sustaining presence in the cloud, a closer reading of the Israelites' escape from the Egyptians at the beginning of the Exodus narrative paints a different picture.
The angel of God, who had been going ahead of the Israelite army, now moved and followed behind them; and the pillar of cloud shifted from in front of them and took up a place behind them, and it came between the army of the Egyptians and the army of Israel. Thus there was the cloud with the darkness, and it illumined the night, so that the one could not come near the other all through the night (Exod. 14:19–20).
We seem to be faced with a pillar of cloud that operates like a pillar of fire illuminating the night. Rashi, in his commentary, attempts to make sense of the verse and insists that the pillar of cloud remained during the night this one time—thus, each pillar had a distinct function.
However, if we understand that there was one pillar—fire surrounded by cloud—then its form is understood from the point of view of someone perceiving the pillar. During the day, we see a pillar of cloud, and during the night, the light of the fire shines through.
Read alongside the Etz Hayim interpretation, it is a wonderful lesson on developing a relationship with God. We must seek not only moments of fire, but engage God during the moments of cloud as well. Their interconnectedness teaches us that our sustained religious life is predicated on living in the cloud punctuated by moments of fire.
While we can imagine the fire served as the spiritual catalyst for the people—as it does with many of us today—the God we must continue to follow is in the cloud. We frequently engage religion at moments of fire, but the challenge is to remain in the expanding moments of the cloud.The publication and distribution of the JTS Commentary are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.