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Beit Midrash Series Parashat Hashavua

Cloud and Fire – Rachamim and Din

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Our parasha contains a description of Bnei Yisrael’s encampment in the desert, with the Mishkan (Tabernacle) in its center (Bamidbar 9:15-23). The Torah describes how the Mishkan was covered with a special cloud during the day and special fire at night. The presence of the cloud was a sign that Bnei Yisrael were to stay where they were, and its removal from above the Mishkan was a sign that they were to move on to a new encampment. It moved before the moving camp, settling at their next place of encampment. It is clear from the presentation that the cloud and the fire served the role of indicating to the people that the Divine Presence was dwelling at that place. This is also evident from the description of the initial erecting of the Mishkan (see Shemot 40:33-35): "The cloud covered the Tent of Meeting, and the glory of Hashem filled the Mishkan. And Moshe could not enter the Tent of Meeting, for the cloud had dwelled upon it, and the glory of Hashem filled the Mishkan."
In the recounting of the inauguration of the Mishkan (in Parashat Shemini), the Torah also describes the preparations for the Divine Presence to descend, which it finally did in the form of a fire that "devoured" the offerings. The people, seeing this as a sign of the arrival of the Divine Presence, bowed down in response (Vayikra 9:24). Another time when fire and a cloud were the sign of the Divine Presence was at the giving of the Torah at Har Sinai, as mentioned in Parashat Yitro (Shemot 19:18) and, at greater length, in Parashat Mishpatim (ibid. 24:15-18).
What is the connection between these external signs and the Divine Presence? Fire reminds us of sanctity and middat hadin (the attribute of strict justice). The cloud is always connected with an element of kavod – honor in a softer, more pleasant manner, and thus middat harachamim (the attribute of mercy).
The scholars of the more mystical truths of Torah explain the matter as follows. On one hand, Hashem is beyond human comprehension, and is distant from us. This is symbolized by middat hadin. On the other hand, He is close to us in that "there is no place that is without Him." This second element is symbolized by middat harachamim. The tension between these two ostensibly contradictory elements serves as the basis for generations of Jewish thought. We can describe two tracks of the expression of Hashem’s complex interaction with us. One is: strict justice, distance, fear, prohibition, intellect, and cold calculation. The other one is: mercy and compassion, closeness, love, permissibility, emotion, and warm relations.
May we merit Divine Revelation which combines the best of both elements.
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