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Thinking Torah

Rav Alex Israel -




Parshat Beshalach

Fire and Cloud


What must it have been like to look up and see the daily spectacle of a pillar[1] of cloud, or a pillar of fire floating above you? This phenomenon of the pillar of cloud and the pillar of fire are introduced to us by the opening pesukim of the parsha.  We wonder as to exactly how they worked. A description of any precision and their exact function eludes us. Did these clouds lead the Israelite nation throughout the 40 years in the desert or were they limited to a particular period of the Exodus? Did they simply serve a role of signalling the direction of travel or did the clouds serve a different function? Why were these tools of cloud and fire in particular, used?


Chavruta study


1. We begin with basic Torah sources (Additional use of mepharshim is recommended):

  • Shemot 13:21-22

  • 14:19-20, 24

  • 33:9-10

  • 40:34-38

  • Bamidbar 9:15-23; 10:11,34

  • Bamidbar 14:14


- For each of these mekorot, ask yourselves what function the pillar of cloud/fire serves?

- If the function in one text is different to a previous source, then what do you make of the "leap" between one text and the other?


2. God's presence and the cloud

Shemot 16:10; 19:16,18; 24:15-18; 40:34-5




The Shiur Section:


Our first impression of the pillars of cloud and fire is that they functioned as a Godly "guidance system". Bnei Yisrael travelled following the cloud or fire up ahead with full security that they were journeying in the correct direction. For B'nei Yisrael, a group of untrained desert travellers this navigation tool would have been an essential commodity.


"When Pharaoh sent the nation forth, God did not lead them by way of the land of the Philistines although it was nearer, for God said, 'The people may have a change of heart when the see war and return to Egypt.' So God lead the people roundabout....The Lord went before them in a pillar of cloud by day, to guide them along the way, and a pillar of fire by night, to give them light, that they might travel day and night. The pillar of cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night did not depart from before the people." (13:14-22)


The text begins by talking about God's leadership: "He did not lead them by way of the Philistines ... God lead the people roundabout." But, what means did God employ through which to lead the nation? How were the Israelites to know the route upon which God was leading them? The very next verses give the answer to these questions. The pillar of cloud and fire showed the people the correct route: God's planned "roundabout" hike through the desert.


Ibn Ezra wonders why a pillar of fire is necessary for night time. After all, did the Israelites travel by night? He answers in the affirmative, proving his point from the pesukim themselves:


" ... A PILLAR OF FIRE BY NIGHT, TO GIVE THEM LIGHT, THAT THEY MIGHT TRAVEL DAY AND NIGHT: for the camp was large and they could travel only in short stages. Because of this, they would travel a little by day and a little by night"


So the pillars of cloud and fire served as "tour guides" to the nation. This is one way of looking at it.


However we can take this line of understanding to a higher level by investigating the theological implications of this special guidance system. After all, the text does talk about the cloud or fire being representative of God's personal attention: "The Lord went before them in a pillar of cloud" If these clouds symbolise God's leadership of the nation throughout their wilderness trek, then we might agree with the simple but ever so deep comment of Rav Yoseph Bekhor Shor:


" The Lord Went Before Them In A Pillar Of Cloud: THEIR KING BEFORE THEM, GOD IN THE LEAD!"


He continues - wondering why God needed to be revealed via a cloud:


" A PILLAR OF CLOUD: Because God's presence is never fully revealed.."


The suggestive imagery of the Bekhor Shor is vivid in its message and boldly anthropomorphic. The Israelite nation are marching to their freedom, away from the slavery of Egypt, with their leader - God Himself - at their helm. It is precisely through the medium of the pillar of cloud/fire that it is evident God is their leader. God is much more than a tour guide. He is their leader in the fullest sense of the word. We cannot but recall those famous verses that we recite regularly in Hallel:


"When Israel went forth from Egypt ...

The sea saw them and fled,

Jordan ran backward,

Mountains skipped like rams,

Hills like sheep.


What alarmed you, O sea, that you fled,

Jordan, that you ran backward,

Mountains, that you skipped like rams,

Hills, like sheep?


Tremble, O earth! Before the presence of the Lord,

Before the presence of the God of Jacob,

Who turned the rock into a pool of water,

The flinty rock into a fountain." (Psalm 114)


In these lines, the event of our Exodus from Egypt is perceived not in human-national terms but rather as heralding the arrival of God Himself. Israel is marching out of Egypt, but really God is marching ahead of them. Nature trembles at the approach of God. The ceremonial procession of Bnei Yisrael is, in fact, the triumphant march of God. God is leading the people out of Egypt in a most tangible manner. (We shall return to this approach later in the shiur.)




This Psalm quite naturally brings us to a new dimension in the functioning of the cloud (and fire). Here we shall begin to dwell upon the protective function of the fire/cloud. As the story of the Exodus continues, we read of how the Israelites were pursued to the edge of the sea with, it would seem, no way out. At this desperate moment....


"... The pillar of cloud shifted from in front of them and took up a place behind them and it came between the camp of Egypt and the camp of Israel. Thus, there was the cloud with the darkness and it lit up the night so that no one could come near to each other all night.... At the morning watch, the Lord looked down upon the Egyptian army from a pillar of fire and cloud and threw the Egyptian army into panic." (14:19-20 and v. 24)


The precise details of this incident are too vague to decipher in full[2]. However, a few points would seem to be worth stressing. Here the pillars of cloud/fire would seem to have taken on a new protective role. They act as a shield between the Israelites and the Egyptians holding the armies back and preventing them from engaging in warfare. The following morning it would appear that God, in the guise of the cloud/fire adopts a more active role, sending the entire Egyptian army into panic[3]. So the clouds are not exclusively positioned at the front of the camp, in leadership position - functioning solely in the driver’s seat. The fire/cloud have the capability to move to the rear of the camp, with the purpose of ensuring its protection. God's presence that - from this text - would seem to be contained within the cloud, has the capability of protecting Israel from danger.


This notion, of clouds serving in a protective capacity, is taken a stage further by the Midrash:


"There were seven clouds: Four of them to each side/direction (of the Israelites), one was above them and another below their feet. A further cloud would pass in front of them levelling the valleys and flattening the mountains." (Mekhilta Beshalach 1)


This Midrash expands the theme of protection in two ways. First, the protecting cloud concept is not limited to a particular historical moment at the Red Sea. Rather, the protection is seen as ongoing and constant throughout the wilderness years. The second way in which the Midrash expands the concepts of the pesukim here is on the number of clouds. The notion of a single pillar of cloud is expanded here to an entire collection[4]  of  seven protective clouds - the Annanei Hakavod - which surround the Jewish people on all sides. Indeed according to one view in the Gemara (Sukka 11b), our Sukkot are reminiscent of these seven Godly clouds of protection.




We have not yet discussed the unusual hybrid of cloud and fire. Is it just a visibility thing; that a cloud is more visible by day, and a fire has a greater nighttime effect? Or is there something more essential than that? What is the secret behind this curious cloud/fire combination?


We find combinations of cloud and fire in a number of places in Torah:


"On the third day ... there was thunder, lightning and a dense CLOUD upon the mountain... and all the people in the camp trembled ... Mount Sinai was all in smoke, for the Lord had come down upon it with FIRE ... and the whole mountain trembled" (19:16-18)


"When Moses had ascended the mountain, the CLOUD covered the mountain. The presence of the Lord abode on Mount Sinai and the CLOUD hid it for six days. On the seventh day He called to Moses from the midst of the CLOUD. Now the presence of the Lord appeared in the sight of the Israelites as a consuming FIRE on the top of the mountain." (24:15-18)


At the dedication of the Mishkan:


" When Moses had finished the work, the CLOUD covered the tent of meeting and the presence 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. ...For over the Tabernacle, a CLOUD of the Lord rested by day, and FIRE would appear in it at night, in the view of all the house of Israel ..." (40:33-37)


These are all situations, moments in which God's presence is at its most developed, at full intensity. Whether at Mt. Sinai awaiting God’s presence, His direct revelation; whether at the dedication ceremony of the Mishkan; in these situations, God's presence is manifest in an almost tangible manner.  (In all cases, it is in the sight of the Israelites/in the view of all of Israel.) In these occurrences, God transmits His presence with a concentration that generates an almost palpable feeling of divine energy. The divine presence manifests itself in each case, in the form of cloud and fire. Cloud and fire are a visual sign of the presence of God.


This is not new. Be it in the burning bush (3:2), or in the ceremony of the Brit Bein Habetarim[5] , God appears to man in the form of fire. Likewise, many Biblical episodes portray the presence of a cloud a an indicator to an unusual intensity of God's presence[6]


One particularly powerful passage is found in Parshat Shelach Lecha. There, Moses is arguing for the fate of the B'nei Yisrael. He refers to the pillar of cloud-fire and would seem to indicate that the awareness of this divine "chaperone" was known throughout the region. Moses argues:


"Now they (Egypt) have heard that You, O Lord, are in the midst of this people; that, in plain sight,  You O Lord, and your cloud are seen standing over them; with a pillar of cloud you go before them by day, and in a pillar of fire by night…" (Bamidbar 14:14)


This phenomenon is so evident to all the nations around that Moses can use this fact in order to pressure God to forgive his nation. SO we see the degree to which God's presence and the pillar of cloud-fire are synonymous.




Thus far, we have discussed three dimensions of the fire-cloud phenomenon:

  • As a way of leading B’nei Yisrael through the desert.

  • Protection

  • Divine Presence


Interestingly the Ibn Ezra (15:22) views these distinct dimensions in something of a progression:


"These clouds ... were with Israel only until the crossing of the (Red) Sea, and in my opinion, they stopped after this. For after Pharaoh and his army had drowned, there was no need to travel at night! Hence the Torah deliberately states 'And they Moses lead the Israelites from the Red Sea' (15:22) - by the word of God. This was the state of things...until Mt. Sinai where they made the Tabernacle upon which the cloud rested... Were the cloud accompanying Israel all the way through the desert of Sinai, why would the text need to state, 'Behold I come to you in a thick cloud' (19:9)?" (Peirush Katzar 13:22)


Later Ibn Ezra[7] elaborates upon this theory:


"After the crossing of the Red Sea, they had no fear, and they had no need to travel at night… Moses lead them by order of God…After the Mishkan was constructed, God descended upon it with a pillar of cloud; as it states (Shemot 40:38) 'At night fire was upon it'; 'and when the cloud travelled, the Israelites travelled." (40:36) …The two "pillars" alternated above the Mishkan." (Peirush HaAroch 15:21)


What Ibn Ezra is telling us is this.


  • From Egypt to the Yam Suf, the pillars lead the nation.

  • At the Yam Suf, the pillars protected the nation.

Then the pillars went away until the construction of the Mishkan.

  • Once the Mishkan was constructed, the pillars returned as a visible sign of God's presence.


One difference between the situations was the positioning of the pillars:

  • In "leading" role, the pillars are in the FRONT of the camp.

  • In "protection" role, the pillars are at the BACK of the camp.

  • Once the Mishkan is built, the pillars remain over the Mishkan in the CENTRE of the camp.


In evaluating this approach of Ibn Ezra, one must examine the pesukim in Shemot and Bamidbar to verify the location and function of the clouds within the camp. Do they support the Ibn Ezra's theory?




We have not yet managed to probe the two substances that are used to generate the tangible feeling of God's presence. Why are fire and cloud the appropriate media?


We might suggest that both cloud and fire are apt symbols of the spiritual. They both seem to have an ethereal quality to them; a spiritual dimension that lies somewhere beyond the physical. Untamed by gravity, seemingly lacking material substance, they float in the air, suspended, somewhere between heaven and earth. We might add something about their function, their nature. Clouds have the life-giving power of rain but also the power to devastate and destroy. Fire too, has this dichotomy. It has life-giving energy, but also the potential to destroy in an indiscriminate and savage manner.


Do these symbols take us back to Bereshit with the primal elements of (light) fire and dark? Is the cloud reminiscent of the primordial "mist that rose from the earth and watered the face of the ground?" (Bereshit 2:6)


Rav Lichtenstein[8] once suggested a different theory. Light is the symbol of order, rationalism, the comprehendible. Cloud is indicative of mystery, transcendence, that which eludes us. He proposed that it is this dichotomy that is suggested in the dual symbols of God's presence. On the one hand, God can be reached via the intellect. God can be perceived, approached, understood. Like light, His presence illuminates. But, there is another dimension to the presence of the Divine. The mystery, the unfathomable, the irrational, the distance; these are all primary aspects of our relationship with the ineffable God. We cannot understand God. In certain ways, God is clouded from us.


At times God is revealed; at others he is hidden. The dialectic of the cloud and the fire is the dialectic of our relationship with the presence of God.


Shabbat Shalom.





[1] We traditionally talk about the "pillar" of cloud because of the Hebrew: Amud. But it is quite possible that the pillar rested in a horizontal fashion, indicating the direction of travel or something similar. It is quite difficult to visualise this miraculous phenomenon.


[2] A close reading of these pesukim will not a blurring of the boundaries between cloud and fire: "there was the cloud with the darkness and it lit up the night" / " the Lord looked down ... from a pillar of fire and cloud". See Rashi who has his own ways of solving the overlap between cloud and fire, light and dark. Later in the shiur, we will suggest a model in which cloud and fire co-exist.


[3] See Rashi here who suggests that the fire acted in a more pro-active role, heating the sand and thereby neutralising the horses. Additionally, the fire burned the wheels of Pharaoh's chariots. Check the strange ordering of the pesukim here and you will see that Rashi's approach is certainly feasible according to p'shat.


[4] Rabbi Yehuda's opinion in the Mekhilta is that there were 13 clouds!


[5] Here, we have a "smoking furnace and a torch of fire". Maybe this too is the hybrid of cloud and fire. (Bereshit 15:17)


[6] See Shemot 33:9, Bamidbar 12:3, 17:10-15. In addition there is a very clear passage in our Parshat Hashavua which gives a clear demonstration of God's presence within the cloud:


 "Moses and Aaron said to all the Israelites: 'By evening you shall know that God brought you out from the Land of Egypt, and in the morning you shall behold the presence of God because he has heard your complaints' ….Then Moses said to Aaron: 'Say to the entire community of B'nei Yisrael: Draw near to God for he has heard your complaints. And as Aaron spoke to the whole Israelite community, they turned towards the wilderness, and there, in a cloud, appeared the presence of God." (16:8-10)


Maybe we can also add certain Midrashic statements: Of a cloud tied to Sarah's tent, and a cloud tied to Har Hamoriah at the Akeyda. See Rashi Bereshit 22:4; 24:67.


[7] This particular section in the Ibn Ezra is particularly fascinating because the Ibn Ezra launches into his doubts as to the Midrashic tradition of the seven "annanei Hakavod" and relates this further to the historical origins of Chag HaSukkot. Look it up!


[8] I found this in an article from the VBM entitled "The Symbolism of the Menorah and the Incense." It is a Sicha for Chanukka by Rav Lichtenstein from 5760.


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