Parshat BeHa’alotcha: I’ve Looked at Clouds…
The other day I was watching the clouds. I remember learning about clouds in school and that there are different names for the different clusters and colours of clouds…I don’t remember what those are. I’m pretty good at identifying rain clouds or snow clouds (granted they’re pretty much the same thing but I still take pride in identifying them). I know some clouds might turn into other kinds of clouds while some clouds will never transform. Sometimes clouds will gather in dangerous ways, pushed by winds, to form funnel clouds. Even with my rudimentary understanding of clouds, I know I would never follow one toward a destination because it’s essentially a cluster of water vapour so it has no permanent substance. I can trust clouds to be transient and wispy.
It would be a shocking moment if a cloud suddenly hovered over my house, and only my house. If that cloud didn’t change shape or form, didn’t release rain or snow on my house, but simply hovered, lifted high and then hovered again, I would be curious and then terrified. Clouds shouldn’t have behaviours that break the rules.
I could also say the same thing about the opposite of water vapours – fire. I am far more aware of the properties of fire than I am of clouds because fire is dangerous. It’s warm and hypnotic to watch but I know it must always be contained. Any fire burning in my home would immediately draw my alert attention. I don’t question it, I react to it.
Clouds and fire are central to this week’s Torah reading, parshat BeHa’alotcha. Not in the fact that they’re mentioned, rather in the way they are behaving. We are told that God leads Israel through the wilderness in a column of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. It makes perfect practical sense since a cloud would shade the sun for Israel during the day and a fire would keep them warm in the cold desert night. That part isn’t what would make us question. The description of the leader and follower becomes central to Israel, the fire and the cloud.
Contrary to the well-known idea that Israel wandered in the desert for 40 years, we were never wandering. When you wander, it implies aimless meanderings. The text tells us clearly that we are always following God, we are always being led. The inevitable question becomes how we can be led by an invisible God.
The Torah describes this leadership to us when it tells us that when it was time to camp, the cloud would hover over the Tabernacle, the communal place of worship. As long as the cloud is hovering there, Israel will not move. It might hover for a few days, a few weeks or a year or so. There is no explanation given nor is one ever asked for. When the cloud lifts off the Tabernacle, Israel knows to break camp and start to journey. It’s an extremely unusual way to communicate. Why doesn’t God just tell Moses when it’s time to camp or journey?
The purpose of the cloud and the fire is not to let Israel know what to do, it is to get Israel to break their slave mentality. The essence of a slave is obedience. No questions are to be asked and nothing should be challenged, questioned or wondered about. A slave who questions things is a potential rebel and would be gotten rid of quickly. How can Israelite slaves make the mental journey from knowing they should question nothing to receiving the Torah which tells them to question everything? God is manifesting through natural, familiar things that everyone would recognize, but them behaving in a way that anyone would question.
As trust grows, Israel will learn to question more and more. Ultimately, Judaism tells us to notice everything around us, enjoy the blessings, repair the damage but never stop questioning.