By Shlomo Riskin
“The cloud covered the Tent of Meeting, and the glory of God filled the Tabernacle… When the cloud was raised up from the Tabernacle, the Children of Israel would embark on all their journeys… For the cloud of God was on the Tabernacle by days and fire would be on it by night, before the eyes of all of the children of Israel throughout their journeys” (Ex. 40: 34-38)
Apparently, the cloud (ha’anan) and the “glory of God” come together as the ultimate symbol of God’s protective presence. With reference to Mount Sinai, the mountain of the two revelations surrounding the twice-gifted Tablets of the Covenant, the Bible similarly records, “Moses ascended the mountain and the cloud covered the mountain. The glory of God rested upon Mount Sinai, and the cloud covered it for a six-day period. [God] called to Moses on the seventh day from the midst of the cloud… And Moses arrived into the midst of the cloud and ascended the mountain; Moses was on the mountain for forty days and forty nights [receiving God’s Torah]” (Ex. 24:15-18).
God’s “glory,” the Presence of God in this world, as explained by Maimonides in his Guide for the Perplexed, is what Moses is desperately seeking to understand and to effectuate when he says, “Show me now Your Glory” (Ex. 33:19).
Whatever that “glory” is, it is somehow to be found in our two revelations from the mountain. The cloud as the symbol of God’s presence seems to hark back to the Divine admonition to Moses, “You will not see My face, for no human can see My face and live.” For as long as we are limited mortals in this physical world of temporariness and imperfection, our glimpse of God, and His Presence, can only be nebulous, ambiguous, “through a cloud darkly.”
Herein lies the tremendous tension within the portion of Ki Tisa, and the dialogue therein between God and Moses. Moses desperately wants the nation of Israel and God to come together as one, with God’s ineffable presence to be palpably felt within Israel and within the world. If that were to happen, presumably Israel would not sin and Jewish history could assume its natural course towards redemption.
God informs Moses: “I will send an angel [messenger] ahead of you… but I shall not ascend into your midst; you are a stiff-necked people, and I may be forced to annihilate you on the way” (Ex. 33:3-5).
God is explaining to the Israelites that His presence within their midst in a palpable and apparent way would very likely be to their detriment; if the God of truth and judgment were too close, He might have to destroy Israel completely before they had a chance to properly repent! His distance from them and the world may be seen as an advantage.
After the second Revelation, however, of the God of unconditional love and forgiveness (Ex. 34:6,7), Moses repeats his earlier requests; Moses now feels empowered to ask God to enter into the midst of Israel: “And Moses said, If I have now found favor in your eyes, let my Lord walk in our midst, [precisely because Israel] is a stiff-necked nation, for You will forgive our iniquity and error and make us Your heritage” (ibid 9). After all, that is exactly how You, God, defined Yourself to us in the Second Revelation.
This is indeed the message that God gives Moses. Israel is the nation of the Covenant and permanence within a world of flux and change (Ex. 34:10); God will always dwell within His people and guarantee their survival no matter what.
Israel will bear witness to the world about the evils of idolatry and the glories of our festivals, our Sabbaths and our righteous laws until we are ready for the ultimate redemption. In effect, God is “incarnate” within the Jewish nation (see the writings of Michael Wyschogrod).
This too, is the message at the conclusion of the Book of Exodus. In the words of the Ramban (Nachmanides), in his introduction to the Book of Exodus: “Behold, the exile has not ended until [Israel] returns to their place and to the exalted status of their ancestors… only when they came to Mount Sinai and constructed the Sanctuary, only when the Holy one Blessed be He returned and rested His Divine Presence amongst them… so that they rose to the status of the chariot [merkava], could they be considered redeemed. Therefore, this Book concludes with the Sanctuary filled with the glory of the Divine in the midst of Israel.”
The Sanctuary is the ultimate symbol of God’s presence in Israel and the world; our promise of ultimate redemption. From this perspective, the sukkah that we build five days after the Yom Kippur of the Second Revelation represents the clouds of glory, the ultimate Sukka-Sanctuary of world redemption. And the sukkot which likewise remind us of the huts in which we survived during our desert wanderings teach us that God remains in our midst – albeit as through a cloud darkly – even as we wander towards redemption, always forgiving and always protecting.
Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone and chief rabbi of Efrat, Israel.