Cloud by Day and Fire by Night: P’Kudei, Exodus 38:21-40:38

After Moses finished building the tabernacle, the mishkan, the final verses of Exodus follow:

לד  וַיְכַס הֶעָנָן, אֶת-אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד; וּכְבוֹד יְהוָה, מָלֵא אֶת-הַמִּשְׁכָּן.
34 Then the cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of the LORD filled the tabernacle.
לה  וְלֹא-יָכֹל מֹשֶׁה, לָבוֹא אֶל-אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד–כִּי-שָׁכַן עָלָיו, הֶעָנָן; וּכְבוֹד יְהוָה, מָלֵא אֶת-הַמִּשְׁכָּן. 35 And Moses was not able to enter into the tent of meeting, because the cloud abode thereon, and the glory of the LORD filled the tabernacle.–
לו  וּבְהֵעָלוֹת הֶעָנָן מֵעַל הַמִּשְׁכָּן, יִסְעוּ בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, בְּכֹל, מַסְעֵיהֶם. 36 And whenever the cloud was taken up from over the tabernacle, the children of Israel went onward, throughout all their journeys.
לז  וְאִם-לֹא יֵעָלֶה, הֶעָנָן–וְלֹא יִסְעוּ, עַד-יוֹם הֵעָלֹתוֹ. 37 But if the cloud was not taken up, then they journeyed not till the day that it was taken up.
לח  כִּי עֲנַן יְהוָה עַל-הַמִּשְׁכָּן, יוֹמָם, וְאֵשׁ, תִּהְיֶה לַיְלָה בּוֹ–לְעֵינֵי כָל-בֵּית-יִשְׂרָאֵל, בְּכָל-מַסְעֵיהֶם.  {ש} 38 For the cloud of the LORD was upon the tabernacle by day, and there was fire therein by night, in the sight of all the house of Israel, throughout all their journeys.– {P}

After finishing the verses and the Book of Exodus, an Orthodox congregation rises and shouts: “Chazak, chazak, venitchazek!” (“Be strong, be strong, and we will be strong!”) Why the need, and the urge to reinforce the need, for standing tall, for being strong? Why the determination? What is it about the cloud by day and the fire by night that demanded such a response?

According to Rashi, citing the Talmud, the cloud was Aaron’s talisman just as the well was Miriam’s and the manna was Moses’. Why then did the Clouds of Glory disappear when Aaron died? If, as the rabbis argued, the cloud itself was glorious because it performed magical functions – flattening hills, raising valleys, destroying snakes and scorpions and generally undertaking beneficent feats – why, if that was the case, and if water associated with Miriam was also crucial to life, why, if the people cried out and rebelled when the wells went dry, why did they not cry out and complain when the cloud lifted and disappeared? Was the lifting of the cloud in any way related to the cloud of guilt that remained over Aaron’s guilt and failure to properly atone for his role in building the Golden Calf?

One possible answer – the clouds were no longer needed. After all, the clouds, the rabbis contend, originally performed the service of a rearguard to protect the Israelites from the wrath of the Egyptians following them. Thus, the IDF called one of their operations Amud Anan, translated either as Pillar of Cloud or Pillar of Defence. As the angel moved to their rear, so did the clouds. The clouds then moved into a forward position as they crossed the desert. Now, the trip across the desert was almost over. The Israelites no longer needed the clouds to navigate for them; they were entering a settled territory. Protection from the hot sun was not needed. Water to wash clothes was not needed. The rough terrain of the Sinai was behind them. But were the clouds not needed for spiritual guidance to ensure that the Israelites traveled on the correct moral path as well as the physical one?

After all. Exodus ends, not with the cloud leading the Israelites as they travelled across the desert, but as a cloud that covered the Tent of Meeting. When it covered that Tent, the Eternal moved into His home and occupied the mishkan. Only when the cloud lifted and went before them, could they continue their journey. This must provide the critical clue to the meaning and role of the clouds. Moses and the people had finished building the Tabernacle. It was shabat. God was present and in occupancy. Out of the emptiness between the cherubim and hidden in the cloudy mist, the voice of God could emerge from a portable shrine. As Nahum Sarna wrote,

The function of the Tabernacle was to create a portable Sinai, a means by which a continued avenue of communication with God could be maintained. As the people move away from the mount of revelation, they need a visible, tangible symbol of God’s ever-abiding Presence in their midst. (The JPS Torah Commentary: Exodus, p. 237)

Though the Book of Numbers does not follow sequentially in the published version, as a narrative it is what comes next when the wanderings of the Israelites in the desert are described. The desert is not just a physical entity anymore than the clouds are. Numbers offers tales of loss of faith, of distrust, of rebellion. We read of a spiritual as well as a physical journey and the people will need all the strength in the world to complete it. It is in Numbers (7:89) that Moses will finally be invited into the tent of God’s abode which he was unable to do at the end of Exodus. Have the clouds become providential by then rather than a source of intimidation?

By this time, the Israelites are totally disoriented and need to be pointed in the right direction. They are displaced persons, physically, psychologically, socially and politically. It is in that condition that they experience God as both inhabiting the mishkan and prohibiting entry. God occupies the space between the cherubim to fill the emptiness, the hollow in their hearts, that they experience as a refugee population of displaced people. Does that mean, as mediaeval commentators suggested, that the completion of the Tabernacle marked a new stage of solidarity and established a loving relationship between God and his people wherein God’s love became accessible and tangible?

The implication is that the clouds served as a new miracle drug, ketamine, for depression. After taking the drug, a patient declared, “It was like the weight in my head, the cloud (my italics) that was there for decades, just disappeared. It changed the entire course of my life.” However, the drug may also have the effect of producing hallucinations, tunnel vision and dissociative effects; people feel untethered from their surroundings.

The older antidepressants, such as prozak, target the neurotransmitters – serotonin, norepinephrine or dopamine. The new drug role in learning and memory.” Ketamine, targets glutamate, described as a “powerful excitatory neurotransmitter that is released by nerve cells in the brain. It is responsible for sending signals between nerve cells, and, under normal conditions, plays an important role in mood, learning and memory.

I suggest the cloud serves as the biblical equivalent to ketamine to stimulate learning and memory, while, at one and the same time, after the mishkan was completed, it was as if the Israelites suffered from post-partum depression. The clouds marked that depression. In one sense, up to that point, the Israelites had been encased in the illusion that they were free. They had escaped slavery. Bu mentally and emotionally, they were still slaves.

The cloud occupied and emerged from behind the curtain of the Tabernacle to expose the deep darkness, the darkness that was over the deep. For although God said, “Let there be light,” that light made the darkness behind it more vivid. Instead of love and harmony, God cast a cloud of gloom and inspired nightmares and depression, though also the way to get around that depression, through learning and memory rather than simply following the dictates of a leader or idolatry of any kind. It was as if, upon completing the mishkan, the Israelites faced the despair of what freedom entailed and became nauseous, became delirious.

As Deborah Eisenberg described a parallel experience in one of her short stories, what the Israelites must have felt, the cloud by day led them to face the fires by night, “demonic, vengeful, helpless, ardent fires as they consumed the trees that had replaced the crops – to observe the moment when, at the heart of the conflagration, the trees that sustained it became phantoms, the fire’s memories.” To understand the character and role of those clouds, one must understand the role of the fires by night that plagued the dreams, the imaginations, the nightmares of the Israelites, but which, at the same time, led to the striking core of their religion, the dedication to both learning and memory.

For if we are not to live just in the moment, if we are to live in the tension between past and future, we must face the fact that the past is a site of conflagration. Enemies from without become the enemies within. What we have left from those fires in our brains are the ghosts of pine trees. The fires are demonic. The fires are vengeful. The fires are ardent and urgent. They rendered the Israelites passive and relegated them to be potential tools of the certainties of a fascist leader. The Israelites had to face their phantoms. The clouds did not so much protect the Israelites from their surrounding enemies and from the challenges of the harsh landscape and the broiling sun, but from the fires within that would and did periodically erupt in the politics of resentment.

Stupidity is destructive and ripples through any society like the devastation of a firestorm. God occupies the space between the guardian cherubim, the guardians of memory. Memory translated into history allows one to experience the dialectic between the two, between past and future, to discover the harmony and the integrity found in the drama of history. That harmony is not bestowed on the Israelites like a blanket of love, but as a melancholic cloud that can only be lifted by wrestling with our souls, our dreams and our experiences. The journey is hard and tricky.

The journey will not allow us to live just in the present, but demands that we live in tension between the past and the future, between the ghosts of trees that remain from the consuming fires and the hopes and prospects of a better future. In the meanwhile, we cannot help being struck by a God that baffles us, by the very baffling of the unrolling of history. The very first lesson we must learn is that there is no hard line between the past and the future that will define the present. It is the present that is ephemeral whereas the combination of moisture and air that constitutes clouds allows us to feel, to be cool as we try to unlock the secrets of the deep behind the destruction of past fires.


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