Beshalach: Pillar of Cloud and Fire

Humans often hear God’s voice in the Torah, but there are only two verses where humans might be seeing part of 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 two kinds of supernatural messengers (called angels in many English translations). One kind looks like a human being, and the other kind looks like an annatural fire.

One of these supernatural fires is the pillar of cloud and fire that leads the Israelites from the border of Egypt all the way to the Jordan River. This pillar first appears in this week’s Torah portion, Beshalach (“when he was sending out”).

After the tenth plague, Pharaoh finally sends the Israelites out of Egypt.  When they cross the border of Egypt and head into the wilderness, the Torah says that God “went before them”. Then it describes the messenger that actually went before them:

And God went before them; by day, in an amud of cloud to lead them down the road, and by night, in an amud of fire to give light for them, for walking by day and night.  The amud of cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night never withdrew from before the people.  (Exodus/Shemot 13:21-22)

amud (עַמּוּד) = pillar, column, upright support. (From the verb amad. עָמַד = stand, take a stand.)

Pillar of Cloud, by Johann Jakob Scheuchzer, 1731

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.

Pharaoh changes his mind about releasing the Israelites, and sends an army unit of charioteers after them. The Egyptians catch up with the Israelites just as they have pitched camp on the shore of the Sea of Reeds. 

Then the messenger of God pulled out, the one going before the camp of Israel, and it went behind them; thus the amud of the cloud pulled out from before them, vaya-amod 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 one did not come near this one, all the night.  (Exodus 14:19-20)

vaya-amod (וַיַּעֲמֺד) = and it stood, and it stationed itself. (A form of the verb amad.)

Moses follows God’s instructions and raises his hand over the sea, and God uses a strong east wind to dry up a swath of the sea. The Israelites walk across, between the two walls of water. But the Egyptian charioteers are stuck behind the pillar of fire until dawn.

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 messenger or 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 the text itself contradicts his interpretation:

And it was in the morning watch when God looked down on the camp of Egypt from an amud of fire and cloud, and it put the camp of Egypt into an uproar.  (Exodus 14:24)

Here the Torah says that God is in “a pillar of fire and cloud”, which sounds like one pillar containing both elements. I picture a pillar that looks like a column of fog in the daylight. As it gets dark, people see sparks of fire in the cloud, and at night only the column of sparks is visible. When dawn comes during the “morning watch” of the night, the cloud can again be seen through the sparks. Since the pillar itself is God’s messenger, God looks down from the amud.

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

And this pillar not only controls the movements of the Egyptians, but also communicates a message to both camps: that God stands up for the Israelites, protecting them from the Egyptians. Looking down from the pillar of cloud and fire, God 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.

The amud continues to serve more than one purpose in the books of Exodus and Numbers. 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.

Furthermore, fire 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.

No matter how visible the reminder of God’s presence in our world, people will ignore it if they are fixated on having their own way.  It’s a replay of Pharaoh’s refusal to take the miraculous plagues seriously.  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.

(This blog was first posted on January 9, 2011, and revised in January 2023.)

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