The Cloud

The book of Shmot ends with a curious verse: For the cloud of God was upon the Tabernacle by day and fire was on it by night, in the sight of all the house of Israel throughout all their journeys (Shmot 40:38). Why does our book, which is filled with so many marvelous and miraculous events end on this very quiet note? Shmot describes the ascent of Moshe, the Exodus from Egyptian bondage, the epiphany at Sinai, the Golden Calf, the 13 Attributes of God’s Grace, yet we close with the completion of the construction of the Mishkan or portable Temple of the Wilderness. It sounds like, ‘we’re leave the light on for you.’  

The Ramban helps by giving a very beautiful picture: When they set up the Mishkan, it established the SHECHINA (Divine Presence) amongst them. At that point they returned to the spiritual level of their AVOT, with the SHECHINA in their tent. Only then were they truly redeemed, and SHMOT, the Book of Redemption could end (introduction to Shmot). 

Rabbeinu Bechaye moved in a different direction while explaining why this verse marks the end of Sefer Shmot. He looks forward rather than back, in his interpretation. He explains that our verse emphasizing two different aspects of God’s relationship with B’nei Yisreal and this world. The verse describes a cloud by day and a fire by night over the newly completed Mishkan. 

The daily cloud signifies God’s RACHAMIM or compassion. While the nightly fire represents God’s MISHPAT or justice. With this Divine display of God’s attributes, the desert camp resembled the encampments of heavenly angels. It was this awesome vision of God’s SHECHINA manifest in the arrangement of the Tribes around the Mishkan which inspired Bila’am’s great declaration: How goodly are thy tents, O Ya’akov, thy dwelling places, O Yisrael (Bamidbar 24:8). 

So, this image of the majesty of the Jewish nation surrounding the Mishkan, is a precursor to the destiny of the Jewish nation as God’s emissaries on earth.  Again, it is important to note that our mission on earth always has a double aspect, very much like the CHEREV PIFIYOT, the double-edged sword referred to by King David at the end of Psalms (TEHILLIM 149:6). Rebbe Nachman explains that SHECHINA is represented by a sword, but the sword always has a dual significance. 

Until now, I have suggested that the dual nature of the SHECHINA in our midst is RACHAMIM and MISHPAT, and that’s true. However, there is another crucial idea. During the wanderings through the Wilderness there were, in actuality, two clouds. One above the Mishkan which guided the Jews’ journey. The other within the KODESH HaKODOSHIM, the innermost sanctum. This cloud which was only encountered by Moshe and, later, the Cohen Gadol must eternally remind us that our relationship with God affects the whole world, but also exists privately within the bosom of every Jew. 

So far, we have discussed the cloud, through its place upon the Mishkan, as representing the special role of Jews and Torah in this world. That’s all good, and true. But there is another reality, we have not yet mentioned. The Mishkan represented an aspect of OLAM KATAN (certain aspects of the entire Creation can be experienced on earth). The Midrash derives this idea from, ‘Yours, O Lord, is the greatness and the power and the glory and the victory and the majesty, for all that is in the heavens and the earth is Yours (Divrei HaYamim I 29:11). Somehow, all that is in heaven is also represented on earth. The Mishkan is one of those representations. 

 Rav Sacks commented on this idea when he wrote, ‘The creation of the Sanctuary by the Israelites is intended to represent a human parallel to the Divine creation of the universe.’ When God created this world, a home for humanity was prepared. When our ancestors fashioned the Mishkan, we, in some incomprehensible manner, prepared a dwelling place for the SHECHINA in this earthly realm. This was the fulfillment of, ‘make for Me a sanctuary and I will dwell in your midst’ (Shmot 25:8).  

In other words, Breishit and Shmot form a neat unit. Breishit begins with God housing humanity in the universe; Shmot ends with a very specific human subset, our ancestors, creating a home for God in this little corner of the cosmos. Rav Sacks concludes. ‘Thus, the entire narrative of Genesis-Exodus is a single vast span that begins and ends with the concept of God filled space, with this single difference: That in the beginning the work is done by God the Creator. By the end it is done by man and woman the creators.’ 

Cool! So, our verse which ends Sefer Shmot isn’t a mystery. It is a jumping off point for the Jewish nation and, indeed, humanity to join with God in the development of our world. But we must never forget the dual nature of clouds. They can guide us on the road, but, if we’re not careful, they can also ‘cloud’ or obscure our path. The Torah must always be the light to guide us on this journey. 

About the Author
Born in Malden, MA, 1950. Graduate of YU, taught for Rabbi Riskin in Riverdale, NY, and then for 18 years in Efrat with R. Riskin and R. Brovender at Yeshivat Hamivtar. Spent 16 years as Educational Director, Cong. Agudath Sholom, Stamford, CT. Now teach at OU Center and Yeshivat Orayta.
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