D’var Torah: Parashat B’Shallach

25 Jan
Torah inside of the former Glockengasse Synago...

Torah inside of the former Glockengasse Synagogue in Cologne (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Exodus comes to a head this week in a packed Parashat B’Shallach. With a multitude of miraculous events including the crossing of the Red Sea, I found it difficult to grapple with the parasha, almost as if there was an overload of miracles. On second glance, it was the עמוד ענן (pillar of smoke) that drew my attention. The final two verses of chapter 13 are exclusively about the pillar of smoke and the pillar of fire that formed a column in front of the Israelites:

And the LORD went before them by day in a pillar of cloud, to lead them the way; and by night in a pillar of fire, to give them light; that they might go by day and by night: the pillar of cloud by day, and the pillar of fire by night, departed not from before the people. (JPS 1917)

But what exactly was this pillar of smoke that would appear by day and why was it so remarkable? Rashi, the 11th Century French commentator, provides some assistance. Rashi notes that in verse 21 the words לנחותם בדרך (to lead the way) are vocalized with a patach. This form of the verb denotes that both the pillar of fire and the pillar of smoke were actually leading the way for the people as they exited Egypt and subsequently as they traveled across the desert to the Promised Land. Additionally, Rashi offers a second interpretation of these two words, “to cause to lead the way,” (the translation above reflects this second option) the cloud is either a messenger of God or it indicates the presence of God.

God’s reaction following the sin of the golden calf as well as Kabbalat Shabbat’s collection of Psalms provides additional understanding of the centrality of clouds in receiving and experiencing the Divine message. Moses has realized the sin of the people and has pleaded with God to save them from destruction. At the re-covenanting on Mount Sinai Moses ascends to the summit to receive the second set of tablets. As Shmot 34:5 recounts, “And the LORD descended in the cloud, and stood with him there, and proclaimed the name of the LORD,” a verse that later is expropriated to the penitential supplications that precede Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, when our experience of God’s presence is the most complete.  Psalms 99:6-7 details further the line of communication between Moses, Aharon, the priests, and God. They call out to God whose answer comes in the form of a cloud. These examples serve not only to corroborate Rashi’s understanding of Shmot 13:21, they have also enhanced the significance of clouds as an indicator of Divine protection and presence. Contemporarily, Israel’s most recent operation involving the Gaza strip was dubbedעמוד ענן  (often translated as Pillar of Defense). Planners of the operation were obviously hopeful that upon the conclusion of hostilities there would be a measure of protection for the citizens of Israel, just as the cloud protected the Israelites in the desert.

Assuming that Rashi is correct, what is inherently special about a cloud of smoke as the indicator of God’s presence? Nahum, one of the thirteen Minor Prophets, whose prophecy concerns the downfall of the Assyrian empire, sheds perhaps some light on the nature of the עמוד ענן. In the third verse of Nahum’s opening chapter he writes, “The LORD is long-suffering, and great in power, and will by no means clear the guilty; the LORD, in the whirlwind and in the storm is His way, and the clouds are the dust of His feet,” which has a beautiful metaphorical value. Although our verse in Shmot is discussing a pillar of smoke and this pasuk is talking about storm clouds, the divine presence within clouds is remarkably clear, which supports Rashi’s understanding of the cloud as a vehicle for delivering divine directions as the people travel across the desert. Further, if the clouds are indeed at the feet of God, we make an important theological statement about where God sits relative to the Israelites and relative to us.

Clouds and smoke are ephemeral. They appear to be within our grasp but are dispersed by the wind. There is no substance and yet an incredible amount of substance. Similarly, we attempt to cleave to God’s presence and sometimes it is whisked away in a fleeting moment. Perhaps instead of attempting to grab or physically cling to the presence of God, we should instead be able to look skyward to the clouds or into smoke as it rises to meet the clouds and know that it is God who is within.

Shabbat shalom.

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