The Torah’s second book, Exodus, concludes with these words: “For over the Tabernacle a cloud of the Lord rested by day, and fire would appear in it by night, in the view of all the house of Israel throughout their journeys.” The final word – translated as ‘journeys’ – is mas’eihem (מסעיהם) ‘denoting the stages of a long trek, anticipat(ing) what follows. The Books of Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy will take Israel from Mount Sinai to the borders of Canaan. They do not know their way but must rely entirely upon YHVH.’ (William H.C. Propp, Anchor Bible, p. 674) Rashi explains that “on each of their journeys and travels, the cloud would rest wherever they encamped. The place of their encampment (therefore) is also called a journey…from the place of their encampment they returned to traveling, therefore they (the places of encampment) are referred to as ‘journeys.’
[Bible map, attached to Numbers 33, London, 1562]
Journeys happen in stages, and each stage consists of setting out, traveling, and coming to a place of rest. Rashi’s comment on that last word of Exodus uses all three terms. The journeying undertaken by our ancestors, the ‘long trek’ in Propp’s phrase, is filled with uncertainty. As Propp aptly puts it, ‘they do no know their way.’ We and our Biblical ancestors have much in common. Our journeys feature the very same uncertainty and need to rely on forces and people outside of ourselves. ‘Well we know where we going but we don’t know where we’ve been’ gets it exactly backwards. The Israelites know where they’ve been – Egypt, Red Sea, Sinai, wilderness – but they really, truly don’t know where they’re going. To be fair, the Talking Heads song sets itself right with its assertion that ‘we’re on the road to nowhere.’
Our uncertain journeys call for some measure of comfort, something to support us, to keep us calm along the way. Enter the cloud. In the words of the earliest Midrash on the last part of Exodus ‘when the Israelites were camped, the pillar of cloud rose straight up and stretched out over the children of Judah like a sukkah. It covered the tent from the inside and filled the tabernacle from outside…’ (Baraita d’M’lekhet ha-Mishkan, 14) The cloud, suggests the Midrash, combined elements of a sukkah and a huppah, and so served as a kind of protective shield throughout the children of Judah’s long trek. In fact, claims the same Midrash, there were ‘seven clouds of glory that ministered to Israel for forty years in the wilderness’ serving such a myriad of protective purposes as ‘lowering the high places and raising the low places before them, killing serpents and scorpions, consuming thorns and briers, and guiding them by a straight way.’
[Jacques Francois Brand, Paris, 1738]
We journey in stages. Perhaps we know where we’ve been. For sure, we don’t know where we’re heading. Something mysterious guides us, something hard to describe let alone touch or see. Our ancestors had the cloud containing the Divine Glory. And we? We too, I believe, have the opportunity to sense and feel the Divine Presence in the course of our journeys. It may not dispense with the spiders encountered along the way, but it will, I believe, guide us by a straight way. I hope I’m right. Shabbat Shalom.