Rabbi David Etengoff
Dedicated to the sacred memories of my mother, Miriam Tovah bat Aharon Hakohen, father-in-law, Levi ben Yitzhak, sister-in-law, Ruchama Rivka Sondra bat Yechiel, sister, Shulamit bat Menachem, Yehonatan Binyamin ben Mordechai Meir Halevi, Shoshana Elka bat Avraham, Tikvah bat Rivka Perel, the Kedoshim of Har Nof and Pittsburgh, and the refuah shlaimah of Yakir Ephraim ben Rachel Devorah, Mordechai ben Miriam Tovah, and the safety of our brothers and sisters in Israel and around the world.
Our parasha contains the final pasuk (verse) of Sefer Shemot: “For the cloud of the L-rd was upon the Mishkan by day, and there was fire within it at night, before the eyes of the entire house of Israel in all their journeys.” (Sefer Shemot 40:38, this and all Bible and Rashi translations, The Judaica Press Complete Tanach) The beginning of our pasuk highlights “the cloud of the L-rd [that] was upon the Mishkan by day.” This was not the first time we have encountered Hashem’s cloud of glory. Rather, in His overwhelming chesed v’rachamim (kindness and mercy), the Almighty had provided this miraculous wonder for us during the Exodus from Egypt:
And the L-rd went before them by day in a pillar of cloud to cause it to lead them on the way and at night in a pillar of fire to give them light, [they thus could] travel day and night. He did not move away the pillar of cloud by day or the pillar of fire at night [from] before the people. (Sefer Shemot 13:21-22)
In his Commentary on the Torah on our verse, Rashi (1040-1105) notes that this pillar of cloud played a dual role as both Hashem’s messenger, and our fledgling nation’s guide during their travels in the Sinai Desert wasteland:
Now who was that messenger? [It was] the pillar of cloud, and the Holy One, blessed be He, in His glory, led it before them. In any case, it was the pillar of cloud that He prepared so that they could be led by it, for they would travel by the pillar of cloud, and the pillar of cloud was not [meant] to provide light but to direct them [on] the way.
At first glance, it would seem quite logical to equate the cloud of Hashem that was upon the Mishkan with the pillar of cloud of the Exodus. After all, they were both nissim (miracles) from Hashem. The Vilna Gaon (“the Gra,” Rabbi Elijah ben Solomon Zalman, 1720-1797), however, carefully contrasts these two instances and urges us to focus upon their significant differences, rather than their apparent similarities:
Even though there was a Cloud of Glory that accompanied and went before them during the Exodus, it was short-lived and remained with them only until the Sea of Reeds (Yam Suf). Moreover, it was invisible to the vast majority of the Jewish people, since it was seen solely by the prophets that were among them. This was not the case in this instance [i.e. our parasha’s verse]: “For the cloud of the L-rd was upon the Mishkan by day…before the eyes of the entire house of Israel in all their journeys.” (Sefer Chumash HaGra, Parashat Ki Tisa 34:10, based upon Sefer Aderet Eliyahu, this and the following translations my own)
According to the Vilna Gaon, there were two essential differences between the original pillar of cloud that went before our people on their journey of redemption, and the one that rested upon the Mishkan: The Cloud of Glory of the Exodus was temporary in nature, whereas the cloud resting upon the Mishkan was permanent in nature. Moreover, the Cloud of Glory of the Exodus was invisible to the majority of our nation, while the cloud of Hashem that rested upon the Mishkan was manifestly present before the entire people. What might account for these notable differences? Here, too, we are fortunate, since we can once again rely upon the Vilna Gaon’s trenchant analysis:
These changes came about from the time of Moses’ prayer [following the Sin of the Golden Calf] and onward: “For how then will it be known that I have found favor in Your eyes, I and Your people? Is it not that You will go with us? Then I and Your people will be distinguished (v’niflinu) from every [other] nation on the face of the earth.” (Sefer Shemot 33:16) Then the Holy One answered Moses: “And He said: ‘Behold! I will form a covenant; in the presence of all your people, I will perform wonders such as have not been created upon all the earth and among all the nations…’” (Sefer Shemot 34:10) [What was this?] This is what is meant by the expressions, [in our verse, “before the eyes of the entire house of Israel in all their journeys,”] and “the eyes of the entire Jewish people.” (Sefer Devarim 31:7, 34:12) And it is for this that we wait once again.
Thus, according to the Vilna Gaon, Moses’ tefilah (prayer) for reconciliation with the Almighty following the Sin of the Golden Calf altered the very nature of the ananei hakavode (Clouds of Glory). For the first time, all the men, women and children of the Jewish people could apprehend the vision of the Cloud of Glory resting upon the holy Mishkan. Suddenly, everyone could feel the Divine Presence of the Master of the Universe.
The Vilna Gaon’s words, “And it is for this we wait once again,” resonate through the ages, until our own time. With Hashem’s boundless kindness, may we witness the Cloud of Glory in the soon to be rebuilt Beit Hamikdash. V’chane yihi ratzon.
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