“Close to the Cloud” Parashat Beha’alotecha 5776

An advertisement that has appeared recently in some of the weekly Shabbat Bulletins[1] distributed in shuls across the country has been eliciting a tremendous amount of backlash. The advertisement reads like this “If you’re already going to hell, you might as well live in the Garden of Eden”. The advertiser is building and selling homes in a neighbourhood in a new town called Leshem.

What is so special about this neighbourhood is that its target population is the “Datlashim”. For the unfamiliar, the word “Datlash” is made up of two words: “Dati leShe’avar” – literally the “formerly religious”. These are people who were born religious but who at some time decided to jettison Torah and mitzvot. As opposed to calling themselves “not religious”, they prefer “formerly religious”. Without a doubt Datlashim are qualitatively different than people who have never lived a religious lifestyle. Living a life of Torah makes an indelible mark on one’s psyche, and so Datlashim see things differently than their neighbours who have never learnt Daf Yomi or who have never truly experienced Shabbat. Datlashim, so the advertisers hope, would prefer to live with people who have fought similar spiritual battles and who have accumulated similar spiritual baggage. As an aside, the advertisers note that the neighbourhood they are building is intended not only for actual Datlashim, but for potential Datlashim, as well. This comment was followed by a digital smirk – ;).

It should not come as a surprise that this advertisement is so disruptive: the fact that the Datlash crowd has been deemed large enough to be actively targeted means that something is rotten in the state of Modern Orthodoxy in Israel. Also, why in the world would the editors of a bulletin that is handed out in shuls consider publishing something that is targeted to people who have abandoned the shul lifestyle? In order to gain some traction I turned to this week’s Parasha, Parashat Beha’alotecha.

In preparation for Am Yisrael’s journey through the desert, Hashem gives them the “Rules of the Road”. As the camp is so large, verbal commands will be difficult to communicate. And so Am Yisrael will be following a cloud through the desert [Bemidbar 9:15-17]: “On the day the Mishkan was erected the cloud covered the Mishkan, which was a tent for the Testimony, and at nightfall there was over the Mishkan like an appearance of fire, [which remained] until morning. So it was always, the cloud covered it and there was an appearance of fire at night. According to the cloud’s departure from over the Tent, and afterwards, the children of Israel would travel; in the place where the cloud settled, there the children of Israel would encamp.” Notice how the Torah calls Mishkan a “tent for the testimony”. This translation has already incorporated the explanation of Rashi, in which he writes that the Mishkan was created to serve as a tent – a container – for the Ark of Testimony. When we recall that the Ark of Testimony received its name because it serves as a vessel – a container – for the Two Tablets upon which the Ten Commandments were engraved, we find ourselves in a sort of “Shrek’s Onion[2]” moment: The Ten Commandments are covered by the Ark of the Covenant. The Ark of the Covenant is covered by the Mishkan. The Mishkan is covered by two tents[3]. And the two tents are covered by a cloud. When all the counting was done, the Two Tablets had no less than five separate coverings.

We have mentioned numerous times in these shiurim the opinion of Rav J.B. Soloveichik, that holiness can be found only where there are boundaries. To be holy means to be separate. The holiest place in the world – the Holy of Holies – is entered only once a year on the most holy of days –Yom Kippur – and only by the most holy of humans – the High Priest. Open spaces and large crowds serve only to dilute holiness. Let’s try to use this definition of holiness to find an indicator that detects what is holy and what is not. Rav Elimelech of Lizhensk, one of the great founding Rabbis of the Hassidic movement, offers a psychologically incisive litmus test in “Noam Elimelech”, his commentary to the Torah. Rav Elimelech compares a righteous person – a tzaddik – with a person of lesser spiritual elevation. The tzaddik, says Rav Elimelech, tends to feel a sort of inadequacy. This feeling is not caused by a lack of self esteem, but, rather, by his keen awareness of G-dliness, which serves to emphasize the extent of the distance between him and Hashem[4]. The tzaddik is always aware of his inadequacy and so he always strives to shield himself from the limelight, almost as if he were “covered by a cloud”. Those who “live in darkness”, on the other hand, are like “an appearance of fire”. Because they have no yardstick to judge themselves against they assume that they are far greater and far more righteous than they actually are. The Torah is teaching a critical lesson: “So it was always, the cloud covered it” – this is the way of the tzaddik. “There was an appearance of fire at night” – this is the way of the person who inhabits “the dark side” and believes that he is the source of all light. For both of these people, the holy and the unholy, the truth actually runs counter to their own beliefs: the holy underestimate their spiritual status while the unholy overestimate theirs.

I’d like to add to the explanation of Rav Elimelech. Parashat Beha’alotecha is not the first instance in which we hear about the cloud and the fire. Immediately after the Mishkan is consecrated, in the last verse in the Book of Shemot, the Torah tells us Shemot [40:38] “For the cloud of Hashem 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.” Why does the verse in the Book of Bemidbar repeat nearly verbatim a verse that appears in the Book of Shemot? Indeed, the Abarbanel writes that the verse in the Book of Bemidbar serves as a preface for the verses that follow, which describe the actual movement of the cloud and the corresponding relocation of the camp. Also, the repetition of the verse gives us a certain amount of flexibility in its interpretation[5]. But I noticed something else. In the Book of Shemot the Torah describes a “fire within it”, while in the Book of Bemidbar it describes a phenomenon “like an appearance of fire”. Sort of, in some way, reminiscent of fire, but not really fire. In the Book of Shemot the fire burns from within the cloud, while in the Book of Bemidbar there is no fire at all, just a carefully crafted illusion. Rav Elimelech taught that the darkness is inhabited by people who firmly believe they are the source of light. The verse in the Book of Bemidbar shows that their light is only an appearance of fire. It’s not the real thing. If you want to look for holiness, do not head for the spotlights. Holiness, even when it burns at its brightest, always remains concealed within the cloud.

The Datlashim are in a truly unenviable situation. They have undergone a crisis of faith. They feel that their previous lifestyle was in some way a mistake. The fact that they call themselves “Datlash” shows that they still have a firm connection with their past. They still have many open questions that tug at their conscience. They are looking for a way ahead. All of this is perfectly legitimate. But when spiritual turmoil is unfurled over the internet and waved like a flag, when it is covered with copious amounts of well-oiled cynicism, it becomes bereft of any measure of sanctity. I would like to believe that Datlashim are people in search of G-dliness. I hope and pray that they find it, preferably in a way that re-embraces Torah and mitzvot. Rav Elimelech would tell them that, based on the advertisement in the Shabbat Bulletins, they’re looking in the wrong places. If you really want to find holiness, you have to stay close to the cloud.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5776

Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Moshe Dov ben Malka.

[1] These “Shabbat Bulletins” have become a huge industry, combining Divrei Torah and advertising, both targeted at the Modern Orthodox crowd. There are at least ten of them distributed in our shul.

[2] “Layers. Onions have layers. Ogres have layers… You get it? We both have layers.”

[3] One tent was made of sheepskin and the other of unicorn skin.

[4] See our shiur on Beha’alotecha 5762.

[5] The verse is not adding any additional information, and so it can be used to transmit other messages, such as Rav Elimelech’s message.

About the Author
Ari Sacher is a Rocket Scientist, and has worked in the design and development of missiles for over twenty-five years. He has briefed hundreds of US Congressmen on Israeli Missile Defense, including three briefings on Capitol Hill at the invitation of House Majority Leader. Ari is a highly requested speaker, enabling even the layman to understand the "rocket science", and his speaking events are regularly sold-out. Ari has also been a scholar in residence in numerous synagogues in the USA and Canada. He is a riveting speaker, using his experience in the defense industry to explain the Torah in a way that is simultaneously enlightening and entertaining. Ari came on aliya from the USA in 1982. He studied at Yeshivat Kerem B’Yavneh, and then spent seven years studying at the Technion. Since 2001 he has published a weekly parasha shiur that is read around the world. Ari lives in Moreshet in the Western Galil along with his wife and eight children.
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