Beshallach: Pillar of Cloud and Fire

(This blog was first posted on January 9, 2011.)

And God went before them; by day, a pillar of cloud to lead them down the road, and by night, a pillar of fire to give light for them, for walking by day and night.  The pillar of cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night will not withdraw from before the people.  (Exodus/Shemot 13:21-22)

And the messenger of God pulled out, the one going before the camp of Israel, and it went behind them; and the pillar of the cloud pulled out from before them, and it stood behind them.  Thus it came between the camp of Egypt and the camp of Israel, and it was the cloud and the darkness, and it lit up the night, so that this did not come near to this, all the night.  (Exodus/Shemot 14:19-20)

And it was in the last night watch when God looked down on the camp of Egypt in a pillar of fire and cloud, and it put the camp of Egypt into an uproar.  (Exodus/Shemot 14:24)

amud = pillar, column, upright support; from the verb “to stand, to take a stand”

Humans often hear God’s voice in the Torah, but there are only two verses where humans might be seeing God:  when the elders climb Mount Sinai and behold God’s feet in Exodus 24:10, and when God lets Moses see his back in Exodus 33:23.  The rest of the time, God becomes manifest through messengers (also called angels) who look like human beings; and through unnatural fires.  Fires of God appear in a covenant with Abraham; in the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, and later Korach; in Moses’ burning bush; on Mount Sinai; in the portable sanctuary or Tent of Meeting; and in the pillar of cloud and fire that leads the Israelites from the border of Egypt to the border of the promised land at the Jordan River.

This pillar first appears in this week’s Torah portion, Beshallach (“when he was sending out”). Pharaoh finally sends the Israelites out of Egypt, after the tenth plague.  When they reach the edge of the wilderness, the Torah says God “went before them”, and it describes the pillar.

The commentary is divided on whether there is one pillar or two.  But if the pillar of cloud is replaced by a separate pillar of fire for the night, what does the changing of the guard look like?  The Torah never describes it.  And in the third quote translated above, the Torah says that at dawn God was in “a pillar of fire and cloud”, which sounds like one pillar containing both elements.  So I picture one pillar that looks like a column of fog in the daylight, but as it gets dark, people see sparks of fire in the cloud, and at night only the fire is visible.

The pillar of cloud and fire has several purposes.  When the Israelites are traveling, rather than camping, the pillar is a guide showing them which way to go.  It is also a reminder that God is with them—that God is “taking a stand” for them, and they must “take a stand” for their god.

The pillar can only be divine.  A whirlwind can form a temporary pillar of cloud, a bonfire can make a pillar of flame and sparks, and an erupting volcano can do both, but a continuously moving pillar of cloud and fire is a miracle.

Furthermore, fire is already associated with the god of the Israelites, and it naturally inspires awe and fear.  A cloud, on the other hand, is usually made of fog.  In the desert, moisture is a welcome caress on the skin, a gentle gift, a reminder of God’s kindness.  God’s kindness is confirmed later in the story by the fact that even after the Israelites do things that enrage both Moses and God, even after they make the Golden Calf, the pillar of cloud and fire returns to lead them.

In this week’s Torah portion, the pillar of cloud and fire is not only a guide and a reminder of God’s presence, but also a protection from the Egyptian army when it pursues the Israelites and catches up with them at the Reed Sea.  Rabbi Ovadiah Sforno, a 16th-century Italian commentator, wrote that the angel, the pillar of cloud, and the pillar of fire were three separate things, and the angel came down to direct the two pillars, which both circled around to stand behind the Israelites, between their camp and the camp of the Egyptian army.

But since the word malach means both angel and messenger, I think the pillar of cloud and fire is God’s messenger.  The message for both camps is that God stands up for the Israelites, protecting them from the Egyptians.

Nevertheless, in the morning, when the Sea of Reeds splits and the pillar presumably moves along with the Israelites across the dry seabed, the Egyptians foolishly follow them.  And once the Israelites are safe on the shore, God looks down from the pillar of cloud and fire, and puts the Egyptian army in an uproar by making their chariot wheels get stuck or fall off.  Only then, when it is too late, do the Egyptians recognize that God is waging war on them, and decide to flee.

It’s a replay of Pharaoh’s refusal to take the miraculous plagues seriously.  No matter how visible the reminder of God’s presence in our world, people will ignore it if they are fixated on destroying something.  When we are determined to solve a problem by eliminating it, we override any inner qualms, whether they appear as cloud, the heart-softening temptation of kindness, or as fire, the nagging fear that we are playing god or doing something wrong.

But if we try to be holy people, metaphorically taking a stand with God, we can recognize both kindness and awe as manifestations of the divine, inspiring us to take the right path.  We have a better chance of noticing when we are fixated on killing a problem.  We can look around for other solutions, other ways of dealing with the problem, even other ways of working with problematic people.

Instead of getting stuck in the muck and drowning, we can continue on our journey, guided by the pillar of cloud and fire within.

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