Parashah for June 10, 2023
Torah Commentary by Bettijane Eisenpreis
“On the day that the Tabernacle was set up, the cloud covered the Tabernacle, the Tent of the Pact; and in the evening it rested over the Tabernacle in the likeness of fire until morning. … At a command of the Lord, the Israelites broke camp, and at a command of the Lord they made camp: they remained encamped as long as the cloud remained over the Tabernacle.”
When I was in Sunday school, we learned that the Lord led the Israelites through the wilderness “in a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night.” The above translation suggests that the cloud morphed into fire at night, but that the fire was just a manifestation of the cloud in a different form. It goes on to say that the cloud could stay “two days or a month or a year,” but the Israelites were entirely dependent on it to dictate the length of their stay in any one place.
Everett Fox, in his translation of The Five Books of Moses, words it like this: “all the days that the cloud dwelt above the Dwelling, they would remain-in-camp.” The hyphens between the words “remain-in-camp” suggest that Fox is using three words to translate a single Hebrew word. I am sure another translation might well phrase it slightly differently. We cannot be sure exactly what the Hebrew says, because there are different Hebrew versions as well.
Instead of being distracted by differing details, let us look at the substance and the consequences of these words. This story, in any translation, is one of the foundational myths of our people, one of the sacred texts upon which a civilization was built. We don’t know whether there were really 600,000 Children of Israel or whether they were expelled from Egypt and wandered in the wilderness for 40 years. We can’t prove chapter and verse of the Bible, but we don’t have to. That’s not the point.
The point is that this is a story, the story of a people who have survived for millennia, led by their belief in God. This is a book written by inspired people that lays down the rules for righteous living, couched in a compelling narrative. The Torah begins with the story of a family – a family like many others, with all its flaws – that becomes a nation, united in its relationship to God.
In the wilderness, the people of Israel experience God as they never have before and never will again. Moses intervenes for them many times, but he cannot keep God from punishing them when they go astray. Still, the people who entered the wilderness, coming from lives of hardship and slavery, are tested and prove worthy. They receive the Ten Commandments and the rules of righteous living. The people who entered the wilderness as former slaves emerge as a free nation, dedicated to keeping God’s commandments. They enter under a cloud – a Divine cloud, but still a cloud. They emerge into the sunshine of freedom.
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