The famous Israeli singer Ishay Ribo asks, in his COVID-19 themed song, “The Crown of Kingship”: What do You (God) want us to understand from all this?
Recent political events starting just as we begin to feel a relief that the pandemic might be reaching its end, are prompting us to ask this question again and again.
“What do You want us to understand from all this?”
As many of us are searching for answers and guidance through the difficult challenges we encounter in our lives, we might want to look at what we can learn from the people of Israel who journeyed through the desert.
In Parshat Pekudei, the Tabernacle is completed, and in the last verse, which is also the last verse of the book of Exodus, we find the first lesson.
For over the Tabernacle a cloud of God rested by day, and fire would appear in it by night, in the view of all the house of Israel throughout their journeys (Exodus 40, 38).
The pillar of cloud during the day and the pillar of fire during the night do not appear here for the first time. We know that these pillars protected the people of Israel when they left Egypt and helped them hide as the Egyptian chased them.
God went before them in a pillar of cloud by day, to guide them along the way, and in a pillar of fire by night, to give them light, so that they might travel day and night. (Exodus 13, 21)
Why are we told again about the cloud and the fire just as the Tabernacle was completed?
Why were the cloud and fire chosen as the elements of guidance?
What can we learn from the journey in the desert about our own journey through life?
The Gra, Harav Eliyahu HaGaon from Vilna, has an enlightening commentary about the connection between the clouds of glory and Sukkot. He asks why we celebrate Sukkot on the 15 of Tishrei and not in the month of Nissan when the pillar of cloud appeared for the first time. The Vilna Gaon explains that even though the pillar of cloud appeared in Nisan, it disappeared when the people of Israel made the golden calf. Moses went up Mount Sinai for the second time on Yom Kippur to ask God for forgiveness. When he came back, on the 11th of Tishrei, he gave the nation the instructions to make the Tabernacle. The building and completion of the Tabernacle, as described in Parshat Pekudei, brought back the pillars of cloud and fire, and with them God’s providence and guidance (Vilna Gaon, Song of Songs, 1, 4). We therefore can understand that the connection and closeness to God needs to be instigated by us. This is what the rabbis described as an “awakening from below” — a movement to change that starts from the nation, and not from God. As the people of Israel are building the Tabernacle, they are also building back the trust and attachment to God. The reappearance of the pillars of cloud and fire confirm that God reestablished the bond with His nation.
What is the significance of the elements of cloud and fire? Why are they used as symbols of a close relationship with God?
In The Zohar, Rabbi Shimon Bar Yohai explains that the pillar of clouds represents chesed or kindness. The fire, on the other hand, represents gevurah or strength (The Zohar, Beshalach 13,158)
A cloud contains within itself the promise of rain and life, both are given to us as an act of kindness by God. The pillar of cloud was facing forward towards the future, showing the people of Israel, then and now, that as we progress through the obstacles of life, we should focus on the kindness of God and try to emulate Him.
The pillar of fire appeared at night, a time characterized by a lack of clarity and understanding. This is when we, as a nation, need strength and stability in order to be able to withstand the events that are beyond human understanding.
Unfortunately, today we do not have the clear guidance of God that our forefathers had in the desert. At times, we feel confused and abandoned. We try to understand the meaning of the events in our personal lives and in our journey forward as a nation, but sometimes we just feel lost. The reappearance of the pillars of cloud and fire in this parsha can give us some hope. If we can construct within ourselves, or our communites, a mini tabernacle, a place for God, we might be able to see His kindness more clearly and benefit from His strength.
By extension, if we try to treat others with kindness and be a source of strength in times of challenges, we might feel that our connection to God has not been completely severed and that we can start to rebuild the trust and hope that God is always with us, guiding us through the events in our lives towards personal and national growth, as well as a stronger relationship with Him.