By Shlomo Riskin
“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…” (Ex. 40:34-35)
What is the significance of the symbol of the cloud, and its twin symbol, fire?
The cloud rested on the Sanctuary and directed the Israelites in the desert by day, the fire directed the Israelites in the desert by night and confirmed the Divine acceptance of a ritual sacrifice (Num. 9:15-23; Ex. 24:17; 1 Kings 18:38). Together, these symbols comprise the heavens, shamayim; the very Hebrew word shamayim is comprised of two words, aish (fire) and mayim (water), water being the stuff that clouds are made of and turn into. Fire and water are also the ultimate antinomies, the eternal opposites. Hence, since the heavens are the abode of the Divine, the heavens also express the consummate paradox that miraculously brings together in peace even those elements which seem to be constantly at war with each other, fire and water!
Furthermore, clouds within themselves express protective cover and life-giving rain, security as well as growth and development. And fire expresses warmth, which likewise nurtures life, and creativity, as evidenced in the myth of Prometheus: the Greeks thought that fire had to have been stolen by the gods themselves, since all inventiveness stems from the proper use of fire.
By using these two powerful symbols of the Divine Presence, the Torah conveys another message. It insists that as long as the cloud rested on the Tent of Meeting, Moses was forbidden from entering it – unless he were to be 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 G-d called out unto Moses and the Lord spoke to him from the Tent of Meeting” (Lev. 1:1). Moses would require specific summons from God before he could stand in the presence of the Divine and enter the cloud.
Similarly, while it is true that fire has the ability to bring warmth, it can also devour and destroy. The great Rabbi Eliezer declared, “Warm yourselves by 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 warn us to temper our 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.” Too much familiarity can lead to a relaxation of discipline, and ecstatic devotion of the moment can sometimes 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 wildly into fanaticism. As the Psalmist declares, “Cloud and haze are around Him, so righteousness and just law establish His throne” (Ps. 97:2).
Moreover, cloud and fire, the lack of clarity expressed by a cloud 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. G-d demands fealty even in the face of agonizing questions and disturbing uncertainty.
Egypt, with its ever-present waters of the Nile and its unchanging social order of masters and slaves, represent certainty; the desert, on the other hand, and especially the rain-expectant manna-less and leader-starved Land of Israel represent the unknown. God expects us to have the courage to enter into the haze, to scale the heights of the unknown, to take the risks of uncertainty as to immediate outcome in order to act as partners of the Divine. We must attempt to make light from darkness, order from chaos, gardens from swamp lands, and 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” (Jer. 2:2).
Perhaps only a nation which has fealty to a God who has no form and is profoundly unknowable can enter into a cloud of the unknown. But even if the precise details of the challenge are not prescribed, we do have a Torah which does specify right and wrong ways to pursue our goal. And, 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,” (Mic. 4:3 & Isa. 2:4) “When the Knowledge of the Lord (at last!) will fill the world as the water (from the clouds) will cover the seas” (Hab. 2:14).
Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone and chief rabbi of Efrat, Israel.