Beha’alotekha 5776: By Cloud and Fire
There is no event in your life through which Life is not coming to awaken you to your
highest and most noble self.
— Bradford Brown
The book of Bemidbar presents us with the journey of the nation from the foot of Mount Sinai to the borders of Canaan. The journey was majestically led for forty years by G-d Himself with cloud by day and fire by night. There is a striking redundancy though in the passage that describes the logistics of travel. For the full effect I include it here in its entirety:
As the cloud was lifted from the tent the Children of Israel would march on after it, and in the place that the cloud would take up dwelling, there the Children of Israel would encamp.
By the order of G-d the Children of Israel would march, and the order of G-d they would camp; all the days that the cloud dwelt above the Mishkan they would remain in camp.
Now when the cloud lingered over the Mishkan for many days, the Children of Israel would keep the charge of G-d, and would not march on. At such times as the cloud remained for a number of days over the Mishkan, by order of G-d they would remain in camp and by order of G-d they would march on.
At such times as the cloud remained from sunset until daybreak, when the cloud lifted at daybreak, they would march on. Whether by day or by night, when the cloud lifted, they would march on.
Whether two days or a New Moon or a year, when the cloud would linger over the Mishkan, dwelling over it, the Children of Israel would remain in camp, and would not march on; at its lifting up they would march on.
By order of G-d they would encamp, and by order of G-d they would march; the charge of G-d they would keep, by order of G-d, through the hand of Moshe. (9:17-23)
Surely it would have been sufficient to simply tell us that the cloud signaled when it was time to travel and that they followed G-d’s direction. Why the indication of various lengths of time that the people might have stayed at a particular site?
One of the most meaningful explanations I have read on this question comes from Rabbi Ovadia Seforno (1475-1550). He explains that since these movements were guided by G-d they were not simply movements but journeys of growth and development. Each station taught us something, challenged us or brought out elements that were dormant within us. This meant that time at each place would vary depending on what had to occur for us there. We might spend more time in difficult places and less time in pleasant ones:
This speaks of Israel’s merit by following G-d in the desert. They would encamp in a place where the cloud would rest even though it was desolate, they would wait in such places for long periods even though it was exceedingly ill…Sometimes, their encampment would be in a pleasant and beautiful place for them and their flock, but there the cloud would only remain for a number of days. Yet, regardless they travelled by the mouth of G-d and not by their affinity to any particular place.
I find great beauty in the redundancy that describes the manner of our travels in the desert. Each station on the journey was uniquely tailored by the Creator and the time spent at each was carefully planned. Together with G-d we embarked with bravery on a journey of self-discovery and actualisation. There were many intense and severe experiences that opened us to levels of ourselves that we would never have otherwise accessed. We also experienced unprecedented grace and care that lifted us and nourished our souls; because of their commitment to walk by G-d’s side.
By order of G-d they would march; the charge of G-d they would keep….
This description of travel is the way in which we move through life itself. When we know that it is by the mouth of G-d that we camp and by the mouth of G-d that we travel we know that the destination is guided by the same Force that brought the entire universe into being. Our stations in life, be they difficult but long or delightful but short, all come to us to draw out the full power of our souls.
We can look at life as encroaching upon us or we can recognise it as a divinely guided journey in which G-d escorts us. The state of our hearts and minds upon the journey makes a difference as to what the journey actually is. When we open our hearts to G-d’s presence He inspires us in times of joy and embraces us in times of sorrow. The journey is never without hardship and trial and at times it may be so overwhelming that we are barely able to take the steps necessary to move forward. But with courage and faith we move through it and it becomes one of the many portals through which we apprehend the divine. G-d appears and lights the way by cloud and fire to spiritually nourish us with hope and grace.
This is the meaning of ‘keeping G-d’s charge’. It is not that they just followed instructions but that they secured and protected the space necessary for His presence to guide them. For us, the descendants of those who first kept the sacred space for His presence, it is no different. We all have the opportunity to keep His charge and walk with Him in courage and bravery at every station on our own journey of life in order to become all that He created us to be.
Rabbi Joseph Dweck
42 Lighting Menorah lights (8:1-4)
Aharon must light the Menorah every day; description of
Menorah as shown to Moshe
43a Consecration of Levi’im (8:5-22)
Cleanse Levi’im, present them before God. Chatat and
Olah offerings for their atonement.
43b Age limits for Levi’im’s service (8:23-26)
Serve for Ohel Moed from 25-50. After this they can
44 Pesach in the midbar (9:1-8)
Kept on eve of 14/1. Impure cannot offer so they ask
Moshe who asks God what to do…
45a Pesach II (9:9-14)
God says: If unclean on 14/1, keep on 14/2 in same
way. 14/2 only for impure or too far away to travel.
45b Cloud travel mechanics (9:15-23)
46 Construction and use of two silver trumpets by
Kohanim blow to call People; or Nesi’im; to move camp;
alarm for war; for days of joy. [Chronology resumes]
47a Departure from Sinai in formation (10:11-28)
20/2, 2nd year. From Midbar Sinai to Paran. Degel
Yehuda, Mishkan dismantled, Degel Reuven,
Qehat carrying Mishkan, Degel Ephraim, Degel Dan.
47b Hovav (Yitro) leaves. People travel ‘3 days’
47c BACKWARDS ‘NUN’ PARENTHESES: Marching
cry focused on the Ark, aron (10:35-36)
48 The complaints begin (11:1-15)
Swift punishment for murmurers. Multitude & people
want meat, not manna. Moshe is sick of caring for them.
49 God answers Moshe (11:16-22)
70 to share responsibility. God plans a month long meat
50 Instant prophecy and the ‘Graves of Lust’ (11:23-35)
68 momentary prophets, but the other two, Eldad and
Medad continue. ‘Quails’ swarm. People fres. God
strikes back. Journey to Chatzerot.
51a Siblings complain about ‘humble’ Moshe (12:1-3)
51b God explains and punishes (12:4-13)
No prophet like Moshe. Miriam gets tzora’at. Moshe
prays for her recovery.
52 Miriam leaves camp for a week, people wait, then
all journey to Paran (12:14-16)
Taken from, ‘Torah for Everyone’ by Rabbi Dr Raphael Zarum, Dean of LSJS