By: Rav Alex Israel
Fire and Cloud
What must it have been like to look up and see the daily spectacle of a pillar of cloud, or a pillar of fire floating above you? This phenomenon of the pillar of cloud and the pillar of fire are introduced to us by the opening pesukim of the parsha. We wonder as to exactly how they worked. A description of any precision and their exact function eludes us. Did these clouds lead the Israelite nation throughout the 40 years in the desert or were they limited to a particular period of the Exodus? Did they simply serve a role of signaling the direction of travel or did the clouds serve a different function? Why were these tools of cloud and fire in particular, used?
We begin with basic Torah sources (Additional use of mepharshim is recommended):
1. Shemot 13:21-22
2. 14:19-20, 24
5. Bamidbar 9:15-23; 10:11,34
6. Bamidbar 14:14
- For each of these mekorot, ask yourselves what function the pillar of cloud/fire serves?
- If the function in one text is different to a previous source, then what do you make of the "leap" between one text and the other?
Added mekorot on God's presence and “cloud”.
Shemot 16:10; 19:16,18; 24:15-18; 40:34-5
Our first impression of the pillars of cloud and fire is that they functioned as a divine "guidance system". They simply travelled with the cloud or fire ahead of them. For B'nei Yisrael, a group of untrained desert travellers this navigation tool was an essential need.
"When Pharaoh sent the nation forth, God did not lead them by way of the land of the Philistines although it was nearer, for God said, 'The people may have a change of heart when the see war and return to Egypt.' So God lead the people roundabout....The Lord went before them in a pillar of cloud by day, to guide them along the way, and a pillar of fire by night, to give them light, that they might travel day and night. The pillar of cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night did not depart from before the people." (13:14-22)
The text begins by talking about God's leadership: "He did not lead them by way of the Philistines ... God lead the people roundabout." But what means did God employ through which to lead the nation? How were the Israelites to know the route upon which God was leading them? The very next verses give the answer to these questions. The pillar of cloud and fire showed the people the correct route - God's planned "roundabout" hike through the desert.
Ibn Ezra wonders why a pillar of fire is necessary for night-time. Did the people travel by night? He answers in the affirmative, proving his point from the pesukim themselves:
" ... A PILLAR OF FIRE BY NIGHT, TO GIVE THEM LIGHT, THAT THEY MIGHT TRAVEL DAY AND NIGHT: for the camp was large and they could travel only in short stages. Because of this, they would travel a little by day and a little by night"
So the pillars of cloud and fire served as "tour guides" to the nation. This is one way of looking at it. However we can take this line of understanding to a higher level by investigating the theological implications of this special guidance system. After all, the text does talk about the cloud or fire being representative of God's personal attention: "The Lord went before them in a pillar of cloud." If these clouds symbolise God's leadership of the nation throughout their wilderness trek, then we might agree with the simple but ever so deep comment of Rav Yoseph Bekhor Shor:
" The Lord Went Before Them In A Pillar Of Cloud: THEIR KING BEFORE THEM, GOD IN THE LEAD!"
He continues - wondering why God needed to be revealed via a cloud:
" A PILLAR OF C LOUD: Because God's presence is never fully revealed.."
The imagery of the Bekhor Shor is exceptionally powerful. The nation march out of Egypt with God at their helm. By the leadership of the pillar of cloud/fire, it is evident God is their leader. God is much more than a tour guide. He is their leader in the fullest sense of the word; the Ultimate Leader. We cannot but recall those famous verses that we recite regularly in Hallel.
"When Israel went forth from Egypt ...
The sea saw them and fled,
Jordan ran backward,
mountains skipped like rams,
hills like sheep.
What alarmed you, O sea, that you fled,
Jordan, that you ran backward,
mountains, that you skipped like rams,
hills, like sheep?
Tremble, O earth, at the presence of the Lord,
at the presence of the God of Jacob,
who turned the rock into a pool of water,
the flinty rock into a fountain." (Psalm 114)
In these lines, the event of our Exodus from Egypt is perceived not in human-national terms but rather as heralding the arrival of God Himself. Israel is marching out of Egypt, but really God is marching ahead of them. Nature trembles at the approach of God. God is leading the people out of Egypt in a most tangible manner.
This Psalm quite naturally brings us to a new dimension in the functioning of the cloud (and fire). I am talking about a protective function to these divine tools. As the story of the Exodus continues, we read of how the Israelites were pursued to the edge of the sea with, it would seem, no way out. At this desperate moment ....
"... the pillar of cloud shifted from in front of them and took up a place behind them and it came between the camp of Egypt and the camp of Israel. Thus, there was the cloud with the darkness and it lit up the night so that no one could come near to each other all night.... At the morning watch, the Lord looked down upon the Egyptian army from a pillar of fire and cloud and threw the Egyptian army into panic." (14:19-20 and v. 24)
The precise details of this incident are too vague to decipher in full . However, a few points would seem to be worth stressing. Here the pillars of cloud/fire would seem to have taken on a new protective role. They act as a shield between the Israelites and the Egyptians holding the armies back and preventing them from engaging in warfare. The following morning it would appear that God, in the guise of the cloud/fire adopts a more active role, sending the entire Egyptian army into panic. So the clouds are not limited to the front of the camp functioning solely as a leader. They can also move behind the camp, to protect it, and God's presence which - from this text - would seem to be contained within the cloud, has the capability of protecting Israel from danger.
This notion of clouds providing protection is taken further by the Midrash:
"There were seven clouds: Four of them to each side/direction (of the Israelites), one was above them and another below their feet. A further cloud would pass in front of them leveling the valleys and flattening the mountains." (Mekhilta Beshalach 1)
This Midrash expands the theme of protection in two ways. First, the protecting cloud concept is not limited to a particular historical moment at the Red Sea. Rather, the protection is seen as ongoing and constant throughout the wilderness years. The second way in which the Midrash expands the concepts of the pesukim here is on the number of clouds. The notion of a single pillar of cloud is expanded here to an entire collection  of seven protective clouds - the Annanei Hakavod - which surround the Jewish people on all sides. Indeed according to one view in the Gemara (Sukka 11b), our Sukkot are reminiscent of these seven Godly clouds of protection. The Midrash echoes this understanding explaining the need for two tools; cloud and fire:
“In the same way that the Shepherd cares for his flock, protecting them from the sun by day and from the cold at night, so God cares for Israel protecting them from the sun by day and from the cold at night. As it states: ‘They never ceased; the pillar of cloud by day, and the pillar of fire by night’ and ‘The shelter (sukka) will provide protection for the heat by day’(Isaiah 4:6), and the pillar of fire at night to protect from wild beasts.”
THE DIVINE PRESENCE
To complete our picture of the meanings behind the cloud/fire combination, we will have to focus upon a third dimension of this phenomenon. We find combinations of cloud and fire in a number of places in Torah:
"On the third day ... there was thunder, lightning and a dense CLOUD upon the mountain... and all the people in the camp trembled ... Mount Sinai was all in smoke, for the Lord had come down upon it with FIRE ... and the whole mountain trembled" (19:16-18)
"When Moses had ascended the mountain, the CLOUD covered the mountain. The presence of the Lord abode on Mount Sinai and the CLOUD hid it for six days. On the seventh day He called to Moses from the midst of the CLOUD. Now the presence of the Lord appeared in the sight of the Israelites as a consuming FIRE on the top of the mountain." (24:15-18)
At the dedication of the Mishkan:
" When Moses had finished the work, the CLOUD covered the tent of meeting and the presence of the Lord filled the Tabernacle. Moses could not enter the Tent of meeting, because the CLOUD had settled upon it and the presence of the Lord filled the Tabernacle. ...For over the Tabernacle, a CLOUD of the Lord rested by day, and FIRE would appear in it at night, in the view of all the house of Israel ..." (40:33-37)
Each of these moments are situations in which God's presence is at full intensity. At Mt. Sinai before the revelation, at the dedication of the Mishkan, in these situations, God's presence is manifest visually and experientially (in the sight of the Israelites/in the view of all .. of Israel) and with a concentration that generates an almost palpable divine energy. At these moments, one does not only see God’s presence, one feels it. The divine presence manifests itself in each case, in the form of cloud and fire. Cloud and fire are the tangible sign of the presence of God.
This phenomena is not entirely new. Be it in the burning bush (3:2), or in the ceremony of the Brit Bein Habetarim (Bereshit 15:17) , God appears to man in the form of fire. Likewise, many places (Shemot 33:9, Bamidbar 12:3, 17:10-15) view the presence of a cloud as an indicator to an unusual intensity of God's presence. (not to mention the Midrash about the Akeida - "anan kashur al hahar" - see Bereshit 22:4)
If the presence of fire and cloud express the weight of God’s holiness and the force of his being, then we might suggest that the pillars of cloud and fire are a constant statement of God’s association with Israel. Of this, we read in Bamidbar (14,14):
“For you are God I the midst of this people who see you directly , You are God! And your cloud stands over them, with a pillar of fire you travel before them by day and with a pillar of fire by night.”
Here the manifestation of God’s presence is directly connected to the pillars of cloud and fire.
WHICH OPTION IS CORRECT?
We have developed three ways in which to understand the pillars of cloud and fire that appear within our parsha:
1. A way of leading Israel through the unknown desert.
2. Protecting Israel during the desert.
3. A sign of God’s manifest presence .
Are all these options true? Is it possible that the pillar of fire/cloud can function in all this dimensions at the same time?
The Ibn Ezra(15:22) sees these phenomena as distinct and explains that there was some sort of historical progression:
"These clouds ... were with Israel only until the crossing of the (Red) Sea, and in my opinion, they stopped after this. For after Pharaoh and his army had drowned, there was no need to travel at night! Hence the Torah deliberately states 'And they Moses lead the Israelites from the Red Sea'(15:22) - by the word of God. This was the state of things ... until Mt. Sinai where they made the Tabernacle upon which the cloud rested... Were the cloud accompanying Israel all the way through the desert of Sinai, why would the text need to state, 'Behold I come to you in a thick cloud' (19:9)?"
So for the Ibn Ezra, the clouds that were for guidance and navigation in the desert were short-lived, however they were soon replaced by the “Godly” cloud which rested upon the Mishkan – the Tabernacle. This was a different sort of cloud. This cloud was a representation of God’s intense presence. It was not a navigation tool.
This approach is a little puzzling because the clouds are most frequently mentioned in this context. In Beshalach and in Pikudei (Shemot Ch.40) and in Bamidbar Ch.9 the Torah talks about the clouds as accompanying the movement of the Israelite camp. However, in the course of Israel’s travel through the desert, one detail about the pillar of cloud/fire alters and this change supports the theory of the Ibn Ezra. Whereas in our parsha the clouds go “before them”, after the building of the Mishkan, the cloud/fire rest above the Mishkan itself. This might indicate a mixture of function. The roles combine; the cloud rests on the Mishkan indicating God’s manifest presence, and they lead their journeys as well. (Check this out in Bamidbar 9)
Both cloud and fire are an apt symbol of the spiritual. Both are substances which seem not to exist out of “matter”. Both float in the air, somewhere between heaven and earth. Clouds have the life giving power of water and the power to devastate and destroy. Fire too, has life giving powers of warmth and energy and destructive power too. These symbols take us back to the elements of Bereshit with the contrast of light (fire) and dark, the cloud reminiscent of the primeval “mist that rose from the earth and watered the face of the ground.” (Bereshit 2:6) These are the most consistent symbol of desert life for Am Yisrael. They help us to examine the concept of God as guide, protector and source of holiness
 A close reading of these pesukim will not a blurring of the boundaries between cloud and fire: "there was the cloud with the darkness and it lit up the night" / " the Lord looked down ... from a pillar of fire and cloud". See Rashi who has his own ways of solving the overlap between cloud and fire, light and dark. Later in the shiur, we will suggest a model in which cloud and fire co-exist.
 Rabbi Yehuda's opinion in the Mekhilta is that there were 13 clouds!
 Here, we have a "smoking furnace and a torch of fire". Maybe this too is the hybrid of cloud and fire.