Parshat Pekudei: Mystery of the cloud

Although the Torah tells us that the cloud fills the sanctuary, there is predictable pushback against the idea of the cloud of glory being physical.

Illustrative photo of a cloudy sky (photo credit: PUBLIC DOMAIN)
Illustrative photo of a cloudy sky
(photo credit: PUBLIC DOMAIN)

Clouds have captured the imagination of poets, writers and sages, and for good reason – they are shape-shifters, sometimes white other times dark, reminding us of earthly shapes and also other-worldly ones. 

For Christina Rossetti, they are white sheep. For Wordsworth, solitary travelers; for Tagore, one with the light that passes through it. 

In this week’s parasha we read: “The cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the presence (kevod) of the Lord filled the tabernacle. Moses could not enter the tent of meeting, because the cloud had settled upon it and the presence of the Lord filled the tabernacle” (Exodus 40:34-35).” What can the presence of God, manifested in a cloud, possibly mean?

Moses could not enter the tabernacle because it was filled. Does God’s presence seem physical, something that claims space? That sense is repeated later in the haftorah that is read (according to Ashkenazi custom): 

“When the priests came out of the sanctuary – for the cloud had filled the House of the Lord and the priests were not able to remain and perform the service because of the cloud, for the presence of the Lord filled the house of the Lord” (I Kings 8:10-11). 

 THE WIESLOCH Torah scroll.  (credit: SHEM OLAM INSTITUTE) THE WIESLOCH Torah scroll. (credit: SHEM OLAM INSTITUTE)

Although the Torah tells us that the cloud fills the sanctuary, there is predictable pushback against the idea of the cloud of glory being physical. Both Rashi and Ibn Ezra, and many others following them, say the tabernacle is a place where the holy name dwells, making it ethereal and metaphorical. The lines of interpretation diverge, some seeing the presence as more tangible and others as more symbolic.

In this cloud we have the tension inherent in the Jewish conception of God: close, yet distant; immanent, yet transcendent; described in physical terms yet non-physical; in relationship to people but unfathomable as well. All of this comes to a single point in the image of the cloud.

A cloud is tangible yet mysterious, close yet out of reach. According to Rabbi Eliezer, the sukkot that we celebrate are not the booths built in the wilderness (the opinion of Rabbi Akiva) but the clouds that covered the Israelites. 

When we consider that God is represented by a cloud of glory, that a cloud led the Israelites by day, and a covering of cloud kept them from being scorched in the wilderness, we see how that single meteorological phenomenon can say so much about the Torah’s idea of God.

Solomon declared that God “said He would dwell in a thick cloud” (I Kings 8:12). God would be seen in manifestation but not in essence. It is in the nature of a cloud to change shape, to be dark and then white, to arise not only spontaneously but even from the incense offered in the tabernacle (Leviticus 16:2).

THERE ARE many traditions about the clouds in the wilderness, including that a voice arose from the cloud to direct the Israelites, and that they blocked the arrows of the Egyptians as the Israelites fled. Yet these and other miraculous cumulus wonders are ways of expressing that God’s presence and the clouds are intertwined.

The words that our tradition uses to talk about God are always multivalent: they mean what they are but always point beyond themselves. We use human language so that we can understand, but always keep in mind that ultimately, when talking about God, we can never understand.

The most famous discussion of clouds in popular culture is in Joni Mitchell’s song: “I’ve looked at clouds from both sides now/ From up and down and still somehow/ It’s cloud illusions I recall/ I really don’t know clouds at all.” The Torah certainly anticipates her declarations. 

The Israelites look at clouds before them and above them, the cloud of God’s glory leaving them after the golden calf and returning to them, filling the tabernacle and leading them through the wilderness – and still, they really don’t know clouds at all. ■

The writer is Max Webb senior rabbi of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles and author of David: The Divided Heart. On Twitter: @rabbiwolpe