Behaalotekha: Dark clouds and Divine source of light

Behaalotekha

Numbers 8:1-12:16

Zechariah 2:14-4:7

One hardly knows where to begin in exploring this parashah, so full with narrative and conceptual riches. What most captured my imagination, though, was the familiar description of the cloud that covered the mishkan, the desert sanctuary.

"On the day that the Tabernacle was set up, the cloud covered the Tabernacle, the Tent of the pact; and in the evening it rested over the Tabernacle in the likeness of fire until morning. It was always so [Kein yihiye tamid]: the cloud covered it, appearing as fire by night. And whenever the cloud lifted from the Tent, the Israelites would set out accordingly; and at the spot where the cloud settled, there the Israelites would make camp. On a sign from the Lord the Israelites broke camp, and on a sign from the Lord they made a camp: they remained encamped as long as the cloud stayed over the Tabernacle" (Numbers 9:15-18).

Picture the scene. The band of recently freed slaves were wandering in the wilderness without maps or guides, directionless as they moved through this wild and terrifying time of national transition, trusting — as best they knew to trust — in Moses' relationship with God. Then a system of divine guidance, available to all to see, appeared in dramatic form. From time to time, a dense cloud would descend and cover the mishkan, the sanctuary that the Israelites had built as a home for God's spirit, and they knew it was time to make camp.

By day the signal looked like a cloud, by night it turned to fire, but the signal was clear; it was time to stop for awhile, waiting for the next sign. When the cloud would lift, they knew it was time to move on, and they watched until the cloud descended again and they knew they had reached another destination.

This scene makes for very good theater. (Do you remember the portrayal of the cloud in the movie, "The Ten Commandments"?) But it is much more.

Reading this description again and again, I found myself envious of the situation in which the Israelites found themselves. How very nice to have direct access to God's guidance. How very reassuring to know that God would physically direct them, that if they got off course, God would tangibly show them the way. Would that we had access to such clear signs.

On a similar vein, I found a commentator who was intrigued by the use of the term, "kein yihiye tamid" in our text. In context it means, "It was always so," that this system of guidance appeared reliably throughout the desert journey. But in fact, the literal meaning of the phrase is, "So will it always be." And so, the description of the cloud becomes a promise for the future, an eternal guide through the life of faith.

"Kein yihiye tamid," teaches Rabbi Y. Nissenbaum, suggests that "God promises that it will always be so in the future. When there come times when the cloud descends, when dark clouds cover the skies over Israel, and not a spark of hope is visible…do not despair…The clouds will disperse and salvation will come" (Itturei Torah, vol. 5, p. 57).

How often in our own lives do we encounter a fog of darkness — of fear, grief, or uncertainty — when it seems that we will be engulfed by the flames of life. How different it would be if we could imagine that God's protective presence was in that cloud, that God's light and direction shone from within the fire. I mean this not in the simplistic sense that some God-with-long-white-beard purposely sent our trials to us for some as yet unrevealed purpose. But what would life be like if we really believed that the cloud would eventually lift, that when the time was right, we would be shown the way?

Suddenly, the image of the desert cloud reminded me of a remarkable piece of music by Claudia Schmidt:

"Beneath the deepest snow, the secret of the rose is merely that it knows: you must believe in spring. Just as the tree is sure its leaves will reappear, it knows its emptiness is just a time of year."

Perhaps there are subtle signs by which the Divine guides us through times of darkness and uncertainty. May we be led to recognize the signs and follow them, to times of joy and love and light.