November 15, 2019

Weekly Parsha: Pekudei

One verse, five voices. Edited by Salvador Litvak, Accidental Talmudist

For the cloud of the Lord was upon the Mishkan by day, and there was fire within it at night, before the eyes of the entire house of Israel in all their journeys.
Exodus 40:38

Dini Coopersmith
Women’s Reconnection Trips

There was a palpable presence of God surrounding the Tabernacle, during the days and nights of the travels and encampments of the Israelites. The cloud of glory by day and the pillar of fire by night would clear the way of scorpions and snakes, protecting the Israelites from their enemies’ arrows and stones. 

The Slonimer Rebbe explains in his commentary on the Torah, “Netivot Shalom,” “every Jew is a microcosm of the Tabernacle, and is expected to become a dwelling place for God’s presence.”

Similar to the Jewish nation in the desert, every individual goes through 42 journeys throughout one’s life. During these travels, he or she comes across difficult challenges, trials and tribulations, like the “snakes and scorpions” in the desert. 

There are the struggles of day: things are calm, but we don’t experience God readily. There is fog and lack of clarity. During that time, we must realize that “in the cloud is God.” HaShem is there, hidden but present, if we only realize he is watching over us. 

And the night struggles: our material and base urges get the best of us, like an all-consuming fire. We need to respond with a corresponding passion to connect to God, to study Torah, to use our talents to influence our society in an active, fiery and exciting way. 

If we sincerely yearn to connect with God, we will enjoy the protection of “the cloud of God” and the “pillar of fire” during the days and nights.

Rabbanit Alissa Thomas-Newborn
B’nai David-Judea Congregation

Why is God’s presence associated with a cloud? Keli Yakar explains that the cloud covered the Tent of Meeting, while God’s glory filled the tent itself. God’s glory wasn’t the cloud, but it was God’s light and fire that appeared from within the cloud. Just as we cannot look directly at the sun — otherwise we will not be able to see the light, but instead be harmed by it — so, too, a person cannot look directly at God’s presence and glory. And so the cloud is a protective shield that enables us to safely witness God’s light and warmth. 

Rebbe Nachman offers a very different interpretation of “the cloud of the Lord.” He explains that God hides himself in the obstacles in life — in the clouds. A wise person will look at the clouds and find God in them, while others will turn away. As we read this final verse of the Book of Shemot, I encourage us to reflect on how we relate to “the cloud of the Lord” in our own lives. 

Do we feel the aspect of protection — a distance that somehow enables us to draw closer? Or is the cloud our current obstacle, something that is foggy and hard to navigate, something we want — but can’t always find divinity in? 

Let’s each ask: “What does the cloud of the Lord mean to me? Do I need to feel embraced by the fog right now or strive to see through it?”

Rabbi Mordecai Finley
Ohr HaTorah Synagogue

There are heavens and stars, and there is a forest of humanity in which the waters of the fountains of the abyss flow up. Poised between the heavens and the abyss is the Teaching, first revealed in thunder, lightning and the blasting of horns, but now safely ensconced in the Ark of God, as it journeys from the abyss of the wilderness to the grandeur of Zion. Along this long, long journey, the primordial tensions between light and darkness, day and night, fire and cloud are played out over and over again. 

Perhaps the Teaching must undergo an annealing process — the primordial fire heating the primordial waters into vaporous clouds of unknowing where the Unknowable can become present. Perhaps the clouds become the unique vessel for the Kavod — Majestic Grandeur — of the divine, a cloud that, like the Sabbath, creates a place of rest for the restless creative energy that generates the universe.

We who bear a vaporous impression of the Teaching in lost chambers of aching souls must suffer an echo of the annealing of creation and chaos, waters above and waters below, wilderness and Zion, fire and cloud, for the Teaching to arrive back to its source. 

This is why we suffer — a mystery is being worked out within and through us, a mystery only known accurately through metaphors, myths, symbols, poems, art and music — the languages of the soul. Language of the mystery cannot name, it can only connote — fire and cloud. 

Sara Brudoley
Torah teacher and lecturer

In the last verse of the book of Exodus, the book of Exile and Redemption, HaShem promises his eternal protection to the nation of Israel.

“Before the eyes of the entire house of Israel,” young and old, everyone saw the cloud of the Lord. Whereas at first, the cloud and fire were in front of the people and not everyone merited to see them, once Moshe asked that “HaShem shall go in the midst of us,” HaShem promised “before all your people I will perform miracles,” and then the entire nation saw the cloud and fire. 

For the providence of HaShem and the blessing of the Torah are not a matter of “faith” that was invented in order to mercifully console earth dwellers. Rather, it is “knowledge,” a steadfast recognition that was formed by real experience into certain fact. 

In all their journeys and wandering, the nation of Israel will remember that HaShem will not abandon them. “By day,” during better times, the cloud of the Lord will go before them and guide them in the desert of their exile. As well as “at night,” during dark and hard times of torture and persecution, the cloud will be “fire” that will consume the devils who plot and scheme to destroy Israel.

The Torah teaches the individual as well, how to survive all the harsh journeys of his or her life. By sanctifying himself like the Mishkan, which is the life purpose of the Jew, he is granted constant higher protection. 

Rabbi Tal Sessler
Sephardic Temple Tifereth Israel

Abraham Joshua Heschel, in his seminal work, “Heavenly Torah,” intimates to us that there are basically two ways of understanding this verse. One way would be the way of the mystic — to literally profess that a tangible divine cloud, and a tangible pillar of fire, actually escorted our people. 

The alternative interpretation would be the rationalist paradigm, professing that that the cloud and the fire are mere allegories, symbolizing two profound theological truths. I will stick to this rationalist perspective. As you may recall, in Parashat Yitro, during the giving of the Torah, it is stated that God’s cloud descended on the mountain. And last week, in Parashat Ki Tisa, HaShem explained to Moses that no mortal can have a direct encounter with the almighty — and remain alive. Hence, the imagery of the cloud can symbolize the theological principle that we can never fully see or apprehend God’s very essence, even when it seems to us as lucid and pervasive as daylight. 

To borrow from Kant, God is the noumenal, the “thing-in-itself,” the essence of things which lies well beyond the constraints of the human cognitive horizon. The pillar of fire represents the talmudic notion that the divine presence also traveled with us during the fiery and calamitous centuries of exile, persecution and even genocide. Thus, here’s one meaning of this verse: You will never fully know God (cloud), and yet — God’s presence will never abandon you, as long as you remain connected to it here below (the pillar of fire).