Cloud and Fire

P'kudei, Exodus 38:21-40:38

D'Var Torah By: Sharon L. Wechter

Focal Point

When Moses had finished the work, the cloud covered the Tent of Meeting, and the Presence of God filled the Tabernacle. Moses could not enter the Tent of Meeting because the cloud had settled upon it and the Presence of Adonai filled the Tabernacle. When the cloud lifted from the Tabernacle, the Israelites would set out on their various journeys; but if the cloud did not lift, they would not set out until such time as it did lift. For over the Tabernacle a cloud of Adonai rested by day, and fire would appear in it by night, in the view of all the House of Israel throughout their journeys. (Exodus 40:34-38)

D'var Torah

The Book of Exodus is full of encounters with God through cloud and fire. Moses first experienced God in the Burning Bush (Exodus 3:2). Half a dozen verses later, God sent hail mixed with fire upon the Egyptians (Exodus 9:23-24). When the Israelites left Egypt, they were accompanied by a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night (Exodus 13:21-22), and when the Egyptians pursued them, "God looked down upon the Egyptian army from a pillar of fire and cloud and threw the Egyptian army into panic" (Exodus 14:24).

As Moses and the people approach Mount Sinai, God says to Moses, "I will come to you in a thick cloud in order that the people may hear when I speak with you and so trust you ever after" (Exodus 19:9). In Exodus 19:18, the Torah states, "Now Mount Sinai was all in smoke, for Adonai had come down upon it in fire." And in Exodus 24:17, we are told, "Now the Presence of Adonai appeared in the sight of the Israelites as a consuming fire on the top of the mountain."

The first descriptions of the Tent of Meeting, which appear in Exodus 26-31, are filled with rich details of cultic rituals, centered on the priestly responsibilities of Aaron and his sons. They are followed in Exodus 33 by the description of a very different type of Tent of Meeting: Moses would pitch this Tent of Meeting outside the camp, and the pillar of cloud would descend as God spoke face-to-face with Moses in the tent. When the people saw the pillar of cloud at the entrance to the tent, they would rise and bow low, knowing that God's presence was within. Here we have two different traditions: In one, the Tent of Meeting is described as the property of the priests, and in the other, the Tent of Meeting is described as an egalitarian place where "whoever sought Adonaiwould go" (Exodus 33:7).

At the end of this parashah-and the end of the Book of Exodus, as well-we arrive at the moment when Moses completes the work of assembling the Tabernacle. At first glance, there appears to be some confusion: At times the Tent of Meeting seems to be situated within the Tabernacle, while at other times the two hardly seem distinguishable, and in Exodus 40:29 the term "Tabernacle of the Tent of Meeting" appears. Moses, who is described in Ki Tisa as the one individual who actually set up the Tent of Meeting (Exodus 33:7)-and who had previously met with God both in the cloud on the mountain (Exodus 24:18) and within the Tent of Meeting (Exodus 33:9)-is now unable to enter it because the cloud had settled upon the Tent of Meeting and God's presence had filled the Tabernacle (Exodus 40:35).

Thus several divergent stories are gathered together in Ki Tisa and P'kudei, and the Book of Exodus seems to end in confusion. But on closer inspection, the final redactors of the text appear to have created one narrative-a blending of different story traditions-that everyone can share. So, too, in our dealings with one another, we bring diverse opinions and come from a variety of backgrounds, some caring more for ritual, some more for social justice, and so on. In the end, it is our task as Jews to gather these disparate traditions and opinions, as the redactors did, so that we can all experience the presence of God in our midst.

By the Way

The cloud-especially in its fiery appearance-was an aspect of a tradition in which the presence of God was experienced to the accompaniment of flames. Abraham is granted the vision of the covenant in such a way (Genesis 15:17); Moses hears God's voice in the Burning Bush (Exodus 3:2); and the grand revelation at Sinai occurs with thunder and lightning as well as a dense cloud (Exodus 19:16).

Fire is the concretized symbol of man's awe and the descending mist of a cloud a tactile encounter with heavenly forces. The cloud came to be viewed as God's messenger, and popular memory enshrined it as another manifestation of divine protection and guidance. (W. Gunther Plaut, The Torah: A Modern Commentary, New York: UAHC Press, 1981, p. 482)

• The function of the Tabernacle was to create a portable Sinai, a means by which a continued avenue of communication with God could be maintained. As the people move away from the mount of revelation, they need a visible, tangible symbol of God's ever-abiding Presence in their midst. (Nahum M. Sarna, The JPS Torah Commentary: Exodus, Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 1991, p. 237)

Your Guide

  1. Our biblical ancestors experienced God through displays designed to provoke awe. Do we still need awesome experiences to facilitate our connections with the Divine? Do our worship services provide us with awesome experiences? If not, what tips can our ancestors provide us with regarding service planning and orchestration?

  2. While God's presence does not hover in a cloud or a pillar of fire over our houses of worship today, we can still relate to the stories in this parashah. When and where are you able to internalize the symbolic images of a protective cloud or an inspiring fire in your worship?

  3. Sarna speaks of our ancestors' need for "a visible, tangible symbol of God's ever-abiding Presence in their midst." Where do we look for God's presence today? Where can we teach our children to look for God's presence?

At the time of this writing in 2003, Sharon L. Wechter, RJE, was the education director at Temple Sinai, Stamford, CT.

Reference Materials

P’kudei, Exodus 38:21-40:38
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 680-690; Revised Edition, pp. 627-636;
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 545-566

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