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“I’ve Looked at CLOUDS from Both Sides Now” by Yaakov Bieler

June 2, 2012 by  
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“I’ve Looked at CLOUDS from Both Sides Now”

(Joni Mitchell)

Special Clouds in the desert.

a. Where to go.

Bamidbar 9:15-23 of Parashat Naso provides additional information with regard to the Divine Cloud(s)[1] that accompanied the Jews during their forty years of desert wanderings. When the Jewish people were first freed from Egypt, the Tora records that the manner in which they knew in which direction to travel was by following HaShem’s Lead, indicated by either a column of Cloud or Fire, depending upon the time of day.

Shemot 13:21

And HaShem Went before them during the day in a pillar of Cloud to show them the way, and at night in a pillar of fire to shed light for them so that they could journey both during the day and night.

b. God Communicating privately with Moshe.

A different purpose for a Divine Cloud is introduced immediately following the Revelation at Sinai, and then upon the completion of the Mishkan which would serve as the focal point of the Jewish people’s worship of HaShem. While the verse in Shemot 13 suggests that the pillar of Cloud would always accompany the Jewish people during the day in a “general” manner, it appears that at certain moments this Cloud would become focused upon a certain portion of the encampment, suggesting a greater concentration of the Divine Presence in that location as compared to the rest of the area in which the Jews were dwelling. In Shemot 33:9-10, following Moshe’s successful defense of the people after they had “worshipped”[2] the Golden Calf, communications between HaShem and Moshe took place in the Ohel Mo’ed (Tent of Meeting). The Tora describes how the people would know that Moshe was in fact encountering HaShem when he entered this place, rather than merely conversing with himself, and subsequently “pretending” to have received a Divine Message.

Shemot 33:9-10

And it came to pass, as Moshe entered the Tent, the pillar of Cloud descended and stood at the door of the Tent, and talked with Moshe.

And all the people saw the pillar of Cloud stand at the door of the Tent, and all the people rose up and worshipped, every man in his tent door.

c. The Divine Presence focused in the Mishkan.

Until the Mishkan is actually constructed, the biblical verses imply that once a particular communication between HaShem and Moshe would be completed, the Cloud would return to its previous diffuse presence above the entire encampment. However, the Cloud possibly assumes a permanent station once the Tabernacle

has been erected.

Shemot 40:33-38

And Moshe completed the Melacha (creative physical activity, in this case specifically associated with the construction of the Mishkan).

And the Cloud covered the Tent of Meeting, and the Glory of HaShem filled the Mishkan.

And Moshe was unable to come to the Tent of Meeting because the Cloud was dwelling upon it and the Glory of HaShem Filled the Mishkan.

And when the Cloud would ascend from upon the Mishkan, the Jewish people would travel in accordance with all their journeys.

And if the Cloud did not ascend, they would not travel until it ascended.

Because the Cloud of HaShem was upon the Mishkan during the day and fire would be in it at night before the eyes of the entire Jewish people for the duration of all of their journeys.

Not only does the new scenario of the Cloud being permanently concentrated upon the Mishkan suggest a continual intense Divine Presence in a single place, but, based upon Shemot 40:35, it would seem to also change the degree of accessibility that Moshe has to HaShem. From Shemot 33:9, Midrash HaGadol[3] infers that Moshe was superior to others who had and would receive Divine Prophecy:

The verse demonstrates that Moshe’s level was higher than that of all other prophets. Other prophets could not prophecy at any time that they wished. But this was not the case with regard to Moshe Rabbeinu, but rather whenever he wished, the pillar of Cloud would descend and speak with Moshe.

From a careful reading of Shemot 33:9, it appears that the reason why Moshe could receive prophecy at any time during the pre-Mishkan stage, is because he had the option of entering the Tent of Meeting first, and then HaShem would Respond and “Make Himself available” to His Prophet. But now that the Cloud is permanently ensconced in the Mishkan in general and the Ohel Moed in particular, it would seem from Shemot 40:35, that Moshe would have to wait to be called by HaShem, as implied in VaYikra 1:1—“And He Called to Moshe, and HaShem Spoke to him from the Tent of Meeting, saying…”

Was Moshe’s Need of a Divine Invitation permanent or temporary?

However it is possible to reconcile Midrash HaGadol’s observation with the verses in Shemot 40:35 and VaYikra 1:1. One approach to integrate these seemingly opposing ideas is to assert that perhaps it was only temporary that Moshe could not enter the Ohel Moed at will, and only during a limited period of time did he have to be first called by HaShem in order to experience prophecy. However, once God Demonstrates to Moshe that it would be permitted for him, as opposed to anyone else, to enter this holy place, the Kodesh Kodashim (the Holy of Holies) from where, according to Shemot 25:22, HaShem’s “Voice” will be heard to emanate by Moshe,[4] then he would subsequently be able to enter at his own initiative. Such an interpretation is reinforced by VaYikra 16:2, where following the deaths of Aharon’s two sons, Nadav and Avihu, HaShem Instructs Moshe to tell his brother Aharon the following:

“…Do not enter at all times (other than on Yom HaKippurim when the Kohen Gadol (High Priest) is required to enter the Kodesh Kodashim) into the Holy place within the curtain (separating the outer section of the Heichal in which is contained the Menora, the Shulchan, and the golden alter, from the inner sanctum in which the Aron is to be found) to the face of the Kaporet (the cover of the Ark upon which the Cherubs stand) that is on the Aron, and he will not die, because in a Cloud I will appear upon the Kaporet.

Since Moshe is told explicitly that this information is meant for Aharon, and by extension, all of the Kohanim, therefore Moshe is not bound by this restriction and could initiate contact with HaShem by merely entering the holy area any time he wishes.

Distinguishing between the contents of prophecies.

A second approach that would preserve both the Midrash Gadol’s contention regarding Moshe’s worthiness of receiving prophecy at any time, and the verse that suggests that Moshe was unable to enter the Ohel Moed due to the Cloud blocking the way, would be to suggest that prophetic experiences took place not only in the Tent of Meeting, but elsewhere as well. It could be argued that the Ohel Moed was reserved for those Revelations that had directly to do with Jewish law as articulated in the Written and Oral Traditions, as opposed to temporal crises that effected members of the desert encampment. RaMBaN on Shemot 25:2 and 40:34 explicitly equates the Mishkan/Mikdash with Mt. Sinai on a number of levels, including the presence of a Cloud:

a. The usage of the phrase Kavod HaShem (Glory of God)—Shemot 24:16; 40:34.

b. Moshe hears HaShem’s “Voice”—Devarim 4:36; BaMidbar 7:89.

c. The origin of the “Voice” is either literal or symbolic fire—Devarim 4:36; the gold from which the Kaporet is made, and from where the “Voice” originates, in Shemot 25:17.

d. The shared terminology Elokai Yisrael—Shemot 24:10; I Melachim 8:23.

e. The envelopment by a Cloud—Shemot 20:17; 40:34.

f.  Moshe has to be summoned by HaShem to enter the Cloud—Shemot 24:16, 18; VaYikra 1:1.

Therefore, when HaShem was Relating to Moshe in His “Lawgiver” mode, and the interaction was a continuation of what had been begun on Har Sinai, then the same protocol may have applied, i.e., Moshe would have to await a summons. However, when Moshe needed to share something with HaShem, e.g., his frustrations over the complaints of the people regarding food—BaMidbar 11:11-15; his prayer that Korach and his followers not have their sacrifices accepted—BaMidbar 16:15; even his inquiry regarding what to do in the case of the daughters of Tzelophchad—BaMidbar 27:5,[5] perhaps he was able to do so without a Divine Invitation, unlike all other prophets.

Part of the delineation of the permissible and the impermissible during the Tabernacle’s dedication.

A third possibility for maintaining the integrity of both the Midrash and the verses in question, would be to say that the Cloud blocked Moshe’s entry into the Ohel Moed   only at the time of the dedication of the Mishkan, described in Shemot 40; subsequently, once the dedication was complete, Moshe was allowed to enter whenever he wished, and only after he had reached the Kodesh Kodashim did the Divine Cloud Descend, similar to the pattern extent prior to the Mishkan’s construction. Perhaps the initial intensity of God’s Focus during the Mishkan’s dedication was designed to discourage those who might flippantly not appreciate the gravity entailed in entering the Mishkan and bringing a sacrifice. If this was the point of the Cloud’s initially blocking Moshe’s entry to the Ohel Moed, then unfortunately the lesson was lost on Nadav and Avihu, whose deaths (VaYikra 10:1 ff.) eventually made this very point so much more powerfully and far less subtly.

The role of the Cloud(s) when the encampment travelled through the


When we come to Parashat Naso in light of the discussions of Clouds in Shemot, we find the Tora now explaining the protocol for how and when the encampment would travel from place to place.

BaMidbar 9:15-23

And on the day that the Mishkan (tabernacle) was erected, the Cloud covered the Mishkan to provide a covering for the Eidut (lit. testimony, a reference to the tablets of the Ten Commandments that were in the Aron in the Holy of Holies), and in the evening it would be over the Mishkan in the appearance of fire until the morning.

So it would be always: the Cloud would cover it and an appearance of fire in the evening.

And in accordance with the ascent of the Cloud from atop the tent, afterwards the Jewish people would travel. And in the place where the Cloud would settle, that is where the Jewish people would encamp.

In accordance with HaShem, Israel would travel, and in accordance with HaShem, Israel would encamp; as long as the Cloud would settle on the Mishkan, the Children of Israel encamped.

And when the Cloud would remain on the Mishkan for many days, the Children of Israel observed the Observance of HaShem, and they did not travel.

And there were occasions when the Cloud would be over the Mishkan for only a short number of days, in accordance with HaShem they would encamp, and in accordance with HaShem they would travel.

And there were occasions when the Cloud was there only from the evening until the morning, and the Cloud would ascend in the morning, and they would journey; whether during the day or at night, when the Cloud would ascend, they would journey.

Whether it was two days, or a month, or a year during which the Cloud would spend a time over the Mishkan in order to dwell upon it, the Jewish people would encamp and they would not journey; and when it ascended, they would journey.

In accordance with HaShem, Israel would travel, and in accordance with HaShem, Israel would encamp; the observance of HaShem they observed, in accordance with HaShem, by means of Moshe.

It would appear at first glance that in addition to the internal repetitions[6] within the verses themselves, one might ask what the need for any of this information might be since it seems to be a needless reiteration of Shemot 13:21 and 36:37 cited above.

The Midrash Halacha, apparently taking note of the extreme redundancy engaged in by the Tora if all of these verses were understood as describing the same phenomenon, assumes that not one, but seven clouds, were present when the people journeyed in the desert.

Mechilta D’Rabbi Yishmael, Parshat BeShalach, on Shemot 13:21.

One can find that there were seven[7] clouds and that HaShem Walked before them.

a) Shemot 13:21 “…during the day in a pillar of (1) Cloud…”

b), c) BaMidbar 14:14 “And they (the Egyptians) will tell the inhabitants of this land (Canaan), who have heard that you HaShem are the in the midst of this people, that You have Appeared to them ‘eye to eye’, You are HaShem, and Your (2) Cloud stood over them, and in a pillar of (3) Cloud You Walk before them during the day, and in a pillar of fire at night.”[8]

d) BaMidbar 9:19 “And when the (4) Cloud would remain on the Mishkan (Tabernacle) for many days, and the Jewish people observed the guarding of HaShem and did not travel.”

e), f), g) Shemot 40:36-38 “And upon the ascent of the (5) Cloud from over the Mishkan the Jews would journey in all of their journeys. And if the (6) Cloud would not ascend, they would not journey until the day of its ascent. Because it was the (7) Cloud of HaShem over the Mishkan during the day, and fire would be Bo (upon it?—lit. in it) at night, before the eyes of the entire house of Israel in all of their journeys.”

Consequently there were seven clouds: Four corresponding to the four horizontal directions (protecting the people from attacks or dangers from the north, east, south and west), one above the people (protecting them from the intense desert sunlight),[9] one below them (providing a soft surface upon which to walk as well as protecting their shoes from wear and tear, as indicated in Devarim 29:4), and one to journey in front of the people—every low place would be raised, and every mountain and hill would be lowered…and it (the seventh cloud) would (also) destroy snakes and scorpions, and sweep and clean before them (the people).

While such an interpretation is certainly creative, and even contributes to the comment of Ibn Ezra regarding the Psalmist’s contention in 136:16 “Regarding His Guiding His People through the Desert, His Kindness is eternal”—“by means of cloud…”, nevertheless it would appear to beg credulity. On what basis would the adding up of the number of times the term “Cloud” appears lead us to think that there were separate Clouds? The simple meanings of the verses do not lend themselves to such an understanding. Furthermore, BaMidbar 9:19 does not per se mention HaShem’s Walking before the Jewish people, a terminology that might suggest the protections that these seven clouds were reputed to offer. And once you are able to count verses in BaMidbar 9 that mention Clouds without the need of any sort of qualifying phrase indicating special care or HaShem Paving the way for the people, then there are 10 more mentions of the word “Cloud” in v. 15, 16, 17 (2x), 18, 20, 21 (3x) and 22! Even literally the Midrash appears to be questionable, when it cites verses out of the order that they appear in the biblical text—Shemot 13; BaMidbar14; BaMidbar 9; Shemot 40.

Another way to understand the importance of the Cloud with respect to the journeys of the encampment in the desert.

Much more plausible is the explanation offered by Da’at Mikra for BaMidbar 9:17, and by extension, the other verses of Parashat Naso dealing with the Clouds.

The verse basically establishes that no factor dissuaded or prevented the people from carrying out their encampments and their journeys in accordance with the Cloud and any other signs that they were given. Among the considerations that could very well have interfered with their compliance with the directions that were conveyed via the Cloud could have been:

a)  the nature of the location of the encampment—an area of grazing land would make things easier, while a desolate, lifeless expanse would be far more challenging.

b)  fatigue—after a very difficult journey, it would be appropriate to give the people time to rest before resuming the march.

c)  the period of time between the encampment and the beginning of the next journey—if the people with great difficulty have just now managed to erect their tents, and the location is a pleasant one, it will be very hard for them to leave after only a short rest.

Nevertheless the people withstood all of these tests and managed to deal with them, and they fulfilled the encampment and the journey in accordance with the Divine Indicators.

Da’at Mikra offers a new perspective upon the famous verse in Yirmiyahu 2:2—

…So says Hashem: I remember to your credit the kindness of your youth, the love of your marriage, when you followed Me in the desert, in a land devoid of planting.

It was one thing for HaShem to require the Jews to abandon Egypt for parts unknown. However miserable their lives may have been, they were trading in certainty for risk; replacing knowing that you would receive food the next day, whatever its quality, with having to live hand to mouth in quest of freedom and religious fulfillment.  We see any number of times how many of the Jews as well as the Mixed Multitude  look back upon what they sentimentally recall to be the physical comforts that they had enjoyed in Egypt. But from the discussion of following the Divine Cloud and thereby never even knowing where one is going to put his/her head down on any given evening, constituted a test of a still higher order.

The unpredictable nature of the length and direction of the journeys recall the peripatetic wanderings of some of the Avot.

It appears that Da’at Mikra’s interpretation becomes a fulfillment of the principle, Ma’asei Avot Siman LeBanim (the deeds of the forefathers serve as foreshadowing for what will happen to their offspring) at least in the cases of Avraham and Yaakov. Avraham is told to leave his homeland and birthplace, and no sooner than he gets to Canaan, a famine takes place and he has to look for another place to live, leading to endangering the virtue of his family. Furthermore this happens not once, but twice during the course of his lifetime, and when his beloved wife dies, he has difficulty even acquiring a place to bury her. Yaakov has to leave home under the threat of his brother’s preparing to kill him for having stolen his blessing; he finally returns home to Canaan many years later, only to be forced once again due to famine and the rediscovery of his favorite son to be exiled to Egypt.

Rather than asserting that it has been foreshadowed from the earliest days of Jewish history that we should not expect to stay in one place for all that long, perhaps the emphasis should be placed upon the assumption that whether we have stability or experience wandering, it is God that we ultimately have to follow in terms of where we go and how we live. Each year, during the Yomim Noraim, we state as much in the U’Netaneh Tokef prayer:

Who will rest and who will wander, who will live in harmony and who will be harried, who will enjoy tranquility and who will suffer, who will be impoverished and who will be enriched, who will be degraded and who will be exalted…

If there is a certain impermanence about the human experience—not only the Jewish experience—then realizing that we are carrying out God’s Will to the best of our abilities—readiness to follow the metaphoric, if not literal, Cloud—offers a sense of purpose and structure to balance the disruption and necessary relocations that can occur over the course of our lives.

[1] The tradition that there were multiple clouds is well-known; however, it is not clear that a simple reading of the Biblical text will lead to the conclusion that there was more than a single cloud. A source that is one of the bases for this multiple-cloud tradition will be analyzed below.

[2] Whether or not they had actually transgressed the laws of idolatry or had merely sought after a substitute figurehead to replace Moshe when they thought he was never returning to them, is a subject of debate among classical Biblical commentators. Whichever position is assumed, suffice it to say that by virtue of the massive number of people who were put to death by the Levi’im (Shemot 32:27-29) as well as died as a result of drinking the mixture of water and golden dust ground from the idol (32:20, 35), combined with the strong threats HaShem made regarding His Preparedness to kill everyone and create a new people from Moshe alone (32:7-10), a serious sin had been committed and severe consequences, albeit limited, were exacted. It could be that since the people had been witnesses to such great miracles during the Exodus and the Sinai Revelation, their communal margin of error was much narrower than would have been the case, had they not directly experienced HaShem’s Might.

[3] Cited in Tora Shleima, Vol. 22, ed. and annot. R. Menachem Kasher, Machon Tora Shleima, Yerushalayim, 5727, p. 12.

[4] “And I will make Myself Known to you there and I will Speak with you from upon the Kaporet ( the cover of the Aron in which the Tablets, among other things, were stored) from between the two Cherubs and are on the Ark of Testimony, everything that I will Command you for the Children of Israel.”

[5] Although this is a Halachic question, nevertheless it was not revealed by HaShem in accordance with his planned presentation of the corpus of Jewish law to Moshe, but rather the answer was necessitated by a temporal event, i.e., the claim laid to land in Israel by daughters who had no male sibling. According to the view that Moshe had been taught this law earlier on, but had subsequently forgotten it, again this was a call for prophecy on the part of Moshe, and it appears that his request for a Divine Answer was accepted.

[6] a. V. 17 repeats the point of v. 16, i.e., there would be a cloud during the day and fire at night.

b. Why do v. 19-22 have to give specific examples of variations upon the principle that the people would    move only when the cloud did?

c. Between v. 18, 20, and 23, the phrase “in accordance with HaShem” is repeated 7 times!

[7] Although this is the number of clouds with which most students of Jewish tradition are acquainted, this same Midrashic source lists alternative possibilities for the number of clouds that accompanied the Jews in their desert wanderings: R. Yehuda-13; R. Yoshia-4; R. Yehuda HaNasi-2.

[8] The context of this verse is Moshe’s defense of the people after their consternation upon hearing the negative report of the majority of the spies. He argues that if HaShem destroys the Jews as He Threatened to do, it would be a Chillul HaShem (profanation of God’s Name) since the Egyptians, who would attest to the Exodus and HaShem’s Power over them in the land of Egypt, would contend to the Canaanites that God had been Unable to keep this people alive in the desert.

[9] Would a cloud in this position be necessary at night, when the sun posed no danger?

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