The Forecast: Clouds and Flames
“And on the day that the Mishkan was erected, the cloud covered the Mishkan, namely, the Tent of the Testimony: and at evening there was upon the Mishkan as it were the appearance of fire until the morning. So it was always: the cloud covered it by day, and the appearance of fire by night. And when the cloud was taken up from the Mishkan, then after that Bnei Yisrael journeyed: and in the place where the cloud abode, there Bnei Yisrael encamped. At the commandment of the Lord Bnei Yisrael journeyed and at the commandment of the Lord they encamped: as long as the cloud abode upon the Mishkan they remained encamped. And when the cloud tarried long upon the Mishkan many days, then Bnei Yisrael kept the charge of the Lord, and journeyed not. And at times it was, that the cloud was a few days upon the Mishkan; according to the commandment of the Lord they remained encamped, and according to the commandment of the Lord they journeyed. And at times it was, that the cloud abode from evening until morning; and that the cloud was taken up in the morning, then they journeyed: whether it was by day or by night that the cloud was taken up, they journeyed. Or whether it were two days, or a month, or a year, that the cloud tarried upon the Mishkan, remaining over it, Bnei Yisrael remained encamped and journeyed not: but when it was taken up, they journeyed. At the commandment of the Lord they remained encamped, and at the commandment of the Lord they journeyed: they kept the charge of the Lord, at the commandment of the Lord by the hand of Moshe.” (Bamidbar 9:15-23)
As we approach the final preparations for what is seemingly meant to be a relatively short journey from Midbar Sinaito Eretz Yisrael, the Almighty instructs Am Yisrael when and how they will travel and encamp. This parasha is extraordinary, to say the least. Having described the cloud-by-day and fire-by-night routine, we are told the cloud’s movement will define whether the people are to stop or to travel. Surely this general rule is sufficient? Do we really need repetitions for another six or seven verses? Even for the beginner, it is pretty simple to understand. The rules were the same whether the cloud stayed down for two days, a month, or even a year. So why the superfluity?
The Torah clearly chooses to elaborate here not only as a practical guide for the people in the wilderness, but to teach Bnei Yisrael an eternal message, with crucial import to this day.
The Or HaChaim HaKadosh says the Torah purposely elaborates here to show Am Yisrael’s dedication in those wilderness years. They would willingly and happily apply themselves to anything Hashem requested of them. The verse begins with encampment, explaining even if they were required to stay in the heat of the wilderness for a long period of time, they would happily do so. Then the Torah describes the opposite scenario; if they had only just finished setting up camp, and suddenly the cloud rose, they would readily dismantle the Mishkan and start moving, no questions asked.
The Or HaChaim linguistically proves that the text doesn’t only tell us what was theoretically meant to happen, but describes the people’s attitude. There was no apathy or frustration. They acted enthusiastically whatever the command.
Rav Hirsch elaborates further with an educational and historical slant:
“The cloud was the Shepherd’s crook by which God, the Shepherd of Israel, announced His will to the People he was leading; where and when they were to encamp, where and when to break camp. And – as is described here – the will and the intention of this direction were absolutely unpredictable. Sometimes a long rest; sometimes just a few days. Sometimes only a night or a day and a night, or two days, a day, a year, and – as the Ramban remarks – as there was nothing to indicate the duration of the stay, the people must have often received the sign to stop, made all the arrangements to encamp and then, perhaps just a few hours later, packed up again and followed the cloud once more. Such was the school of the wandering through the wilderness, which was to teach us for all time to follow God devoutly and trustfully; to have complete confidence in Him, however incomprehensible His guidance may seem to us. Although He tells us now to leave the place where we have only just made ourselves comfortable, or to stay patiently in the most cheerless conditions, we should still always do what He directs; always feel cheerful under the crook of God’s guidance, and always be ready to defer our life plan to God and follow His guidance even on the most incomprehensible paths with enduring patience and never-failing courage.
But if we look more closely at the verses describing the testing exercises with which God wished to educate His People for all time, it is the patient endurance of lengthy stops rather than the strain of lengthy wanderings that seems to be stressed as the real test. Nothing whatsoever is mentioned of the wanderings and their duration, but very definitely and repeatedly we are told of standing fast for long rests… this is more understandable when one thinks of the inhospitality of the desert, and remembers that the people knew only too well the midbar was not the end of their wanderings, but that their goal lay beyond, and every delay anywhere in the wilderness only held them back from the Promised Land. These were therefore exercises in that virtue of quiet and cheerful, devoted and confident, enduring patience which the ‘People of God’s guidance’ required more than any other in their Galut-wanderings…”
Rav Hirsch’s emphasis is less on praising the already righteous people and more on the national educational process to take place over the next 40 years in the wilderness, in preparation for the hard times to follow in our history. We were taught that we are to be guided by the word of God whatever we may think. If we succeed in internalizing this, we will succeed in the tasks that lie ahead of us.
Rav Hirsch alludes to Am Yisrael’s history. In truth, since the destruction of the Second Beit Mikdash, we have been walking through a 2,000 year-long wilderness. These years have been littered with tragedy, pogroms and the Holocaust, the most unimaginable crime on earth. On each of these occasions, the camp of Israel has been coerced into stagnancy if not regression, whilst in the desert of exile. Time and again we have been forcibly restrained from fulfilling our national ideals. As the tragedies have increased, our faith and belief have been tested to the hilt. Will we continue to journey as God’s people through the wilderness of exile? Or will we give in to despair, broken with disillusionment? Will we continue to follow our cloud? The Jewish people push themselves forward, but find themselves repeatedly treading quicksand.
Our parasha gives us the key to survival. We will definitely reach our Promised Land, but we need to trust in the Almighty.
How many times during the last 2000 years have Am Yisrael been settled at a temporary station in the wilderness of Diaspora, only to be suddenly forced to leave in search of a new exile? Babylon, Spain, Poland; all of these exiles produced an unparalleled wealth of Jewish spiritual growth, yet the cloud always rose and the camp had to move on, often after suffering horrendous loss of life. It is our hope and prayer that we have finally reached the end of our exilic period, but we still have many mountains to climb and much to achieve. To do so we must be sure we are always guided only by the word of Hashem.
The Or HaChaim speaks of the dedicated generation of the Midbar; Rav Hirsch sees the Midbar more in terms of an intense period of schooling, a prototype behavior giving Am Yisrael the inner strength to keep journeying in the wilderness, whatever the conditions. And maybe we only exist today due to this stubborn dedication, against all the odds.
The Netivot Shalom offers a novel and quite beautiful interpretation of our verses.
Each and every person is obliged to establish their own personal Mishkan. And most of our teenage years are spent building that Tabernacle, in which the Shechina will ultimately dwell. We have our ups and downs; our trends, our inner battles, until we reach a stage in life when we feel we have built our Mishkan. We have our hashkafa, and we have found our balance in Jewish society.
It is exactly at this point we often make the most fundamental of errors. We now feel we can sit back and relax and let life take its course. We become religiously complacent and inevitably regress, sometimes without even noticing. We really believe all we have to do is stroll through the wilderness of this world on our way to Olam Haba.
Our pesukim describe this exact reality. As soon as the Mishkan is established, the cloud descends. This cloud represents lack of clarity, and thus lack of direction. We thought we could see exactly where we were going and then the cloud comes and confuses our path. This happens to all of us. What are we supposed to do?
First, we are to internalize the following:
We must remain alert at all times even once we have a Mishkan. We must stride forward through the wilderness of this world on our journey towards the Promised Land, the World to Come. But we must also be aware that the cloud will inevitably descend upon us, and when this happens we must stop journeying and set up camp!
When a person is suddenly surrounded by lack of clarity or confusion, the last thing they should do is run forward regardless. When a power-cut suddenly places the entire household into a state of darkness, we all immediately stop what we are doing, acclimatize ourselves to the new situation and tread very carefully waiting for the light to return.
Similarly, our Mishkan will often be surrounded by cloud. That is the time to set up camp. We must continue to uphold our religiosity, while resisting the temptation to venture out into the dark. We may suddenly lose the drive to pray or learn, but the response is definitely not to drop it all. Rather, keep praying and learning regularly, even without feeling, until the cloud lifts, which it will most certainly do.
When we are engulfed in cloud we must aim at consolidation. This is when our real relationship with the Almighty is to be defined; when the chips are down, when there is no spiritual high. We must dig in, encamped in what we know deep down to be true, and wait for the cloud to pass. And when that moment comes, as it inevitably will, we must learn to take the opportunity and surge forward.
Our lives are full of these changing circumstances, and if we are to succeed in our challenge we must learn how to acclimatize ourselves to each situation. We need to know how to react in the best possible way.
Yet our Mishkan is not only engulfed by cloud. At night, we are threatened by fire. Our ‘enemy’ is not necessarily just the ‘cloudy’ periods; we must beware of fire too.
Even when there is no cloud surrounding our personal Mishkan; even when we can clearly see where we’re going, what we should be doing, and why we’re doing it, our Mishkan could still quite easily be engulfed in flames! Fire signifies the animal desires of a human being. Even the holiest person is still only a human being, and the body-versus-soul battle is relentless. The truth can suddenly be swept aside not by a lack of philosophical clarity, but by sudden animal desire. This is no less a threat.
If our Mishkan is to successfully travel through the wilderness of this world on its journey to the Promised Land ofOlam Haba, we need to be strong in body and strong in mind. We will need to deflect and control our material instincts if we are to achieve anything in this world. Our Mishkan will need to overcome the fire and possess the inner strength to overcome the cloudy periods of stagnation.
Our Mishkan can be strengthened in many ways, though there at least three specific ones that immediately come to mind:
1: Praying thrice daily, keeps us in perspective. Every time we leave the world and enter the Bet Knesset we are able to realign ourselves. We are able to briefly blow away the clouds, and reestablish our foundations.
2: We should do our utmost to learn a little Torah every day. It is better to learn a little every day, than learn a lot once a week. The daily input of Torat Hashem to our lives, once again enables us to see through the clouds, and control the flames.
3: Yet probably the most crucial tool of all is the Shabbat. If we use this day as we should do, then we can gain the strength and direction that is required to make it through the week. A Shabbat spent learning, singing and praying – is the essential remedy for keeping our Mishkan alive and well.
Let us conclude with the hope and prayer that just as the Mishkan successfully passed through 40 years of wilderness to reach Eretz Yisrael, may Hashem give us the strength to succeed in building our own spiritual journeys to the truth of Gan Eden!