"On the day the Tabernacle was erected, the cloud covered the Tabernacle," the Bible records in the Torah portion of Behaaloscha (1). "Then, in the evening, there would be upon the Tabernacle like a fiery glow till morning."
"From then on it remained that way," the Torah continues. "The cloud would cover it [by day] and a glow of fire by night (2)."
Two points require clarification. First: What was the significance and purpose of this dual miraculous canopy that hovered over the Tabernacle in the desert -- a cloud during the day and a glowing flame during the night (3)?
Second: Like every episode recorded in the Bible, this one, too, contains a spiritual interpretation that continuously plays itself out in journeys of the human spirit. How can we apply the story of this Tabernacle canopy to our lives today?
Smugness vs. despair
The Tabernacle was the edifice erected by the people of Israel in the Sinai desert to serve as a home for the Divine presence. In Jewish writings, the Tabernacle represents the place in the human heart where the light of G-d resides (4). The Tabernacle, then, exists timelessly within the human soul.
This sacred place within us, declares the Bible, must include both a cloud by day and a fire by night.
Each person experiences in his or her life "days" and "nights" -- moments of light and moments of darkness, times of happiness and contentment as well as times of agony and turmoil. For some, the days are longer than the nights; for others the nights sadly exceed the days. Yet most humans possess a share of both realities.
Now, when things are going well for us -- when we're paying the bills nicely, the kids are healthy, our spouses are there for us and we're satisfied -- we often forget how vulnerable we really are in this world. We tend to become smug, complacent and desensitized. We often become apathetic to other people's pain. We don't feel the need for genuine friendships, and certainly not for G-d. We don't feel the urgent need to be real.
On the other hand, when things become (heaven forbid) difficult and painful -- a loss in the family, illness of a loved one, a marriage goes sour, the bank is after us, our children are not doing well or we are overcome by inner mental or physical challenges -- we often fall prey to feelings of despair and loneliness. We sink into the morass of life's hardships, as we say to ourselves, "it's dark and it's getting darker."
Don't get carried away
Thus, the Torah this week teaches us a moving lesson.
If you are to become a human Tabernacle, if you wish to discover the grace of G-d within your heart, you must recall the darker cloud hovering above you even during times of brightness and splendor. A person must always remember that ultimately he cannot claim ownership over anything in his life: Life is a gift, love is gift, parents are gifts and children are gifts. One ought never to become blind to the truth that everything can change in a single instance
(5) and that there is so much pain in the world. When you remember the clouds, you will never become arrogant, detached and false.
On the other hand, when night falls upon us, when life exposes its painful and darker side to us, we need to recall the glowing light hovering above us. We must remember that every experience we endure must become part of our life's journey to transform the world into a home for goodness and G-dliness. Every challenge contains an opportunity for deeper growth and for a deeper relationship with our soul and our G-d. Each cloud contains a flame within.
Judaism's Mission Statement
This is the powerful significance behind the mitzvah, the Jewish tradition, to recite twice each day the Shema Yisroel, the most reverent Jewish prayer, once in the morning and once in the evening.
When dawn breaks and the sun emerges to embrace us with its warmth, we state: "Hear O Israel, the Lord is our G-d, the Lord is One." Each of us is essentially a reflection of G-d, a recipient of His grace.
When night falls and darkness pervades our lives, we once again declare: "Hear O Israel, the Lord is our G-d, the Lord is One." G-d is one means that the same G-d Who was present during the "day," is also present during the "night." Darkness is painful and bitter, but it, too, must become part of a dynamic relationship with life and with G-d (6).
The breaking of the glass
This is also the mystical reason for the enigmatic Jewish custom to break a glass under the wedding canopy (the Chupah) at the moment when the groom and the bride are about to enter into a private room and celebrate their union, and the guests are about to begin feasting and dancing.
Granted, we break a glass during a marriage ceremony to remember the destruction of Jerusalem and all of the broken hearts in the world. But couldn't we do the breaking a little earlier, during the more solemn moments of the ceremony? Must we, at the happiest moment of a bride and a groom, introduce sadness and melancholy?
The answer: Those who at the peak of their personal joy remember the pain that is still present in the outside world, will, at the moment of their pain, remember the joy out there in the world. On the other hand, those who at a moment of a personal high, become totally submerged in their own mood and are indifferent to the broken hearts around them, then, when struck by pain and hardship, they will remain stuck in their own quagmire, unable to reach out and glean hope and inspiration from the laughter and joy still present in the world (7).
Thus, the Torah states: "From then on it remained that way, the cloud would cover it [by day] and a glow of fire by night." This is an eternal directive. During your days, look up to the clouds; during your nights, gaze up to the fire.
And if during your days, you will remember the clouds, then during your nights you will remember and be warmed by the flame (8).
1) Numbers 9:15.
2) Ibid. 9:16.
3) It is clear that the cloud did not serve as a shield from the hot son burning in the desert. First, the entire dwelling place of the Jews was constantly surrounded by "clouds of glory" (see, for example, Leviticus
23:43 and Rashi ibid; Talmud Sukah 11b.). It is also clear from the commentary of Ramban on this verse that the cloud did not serve the purpose.
The Or HaChaim ibid. presents a twofold explanation for the existence of the hovering cloud during daytime from the literal point a view. What follows is the spiritual explanation of a metaphysical and timeless tale.
4) See Alshich to Terumah 25:8. Reishis Chachmah Portal of Love chapter 6. Shalah 69a; 201a; 325b; 326b. Likkutei Torah Naso 20b.
5) See the commentary of Even Ezra to Ecclesiastes 7:14.
6) See Sichas 24 Teves 5704 (Published in Toras Yemei Bereshis).
7) Heard from my brother Simon Jacobson, during my own chupah, in the name of the Lubavitcher Rebbe.
8) This essay is based on the writings of the Chassidic masters. Cf. L'torah U'lmoadim (by Rabbi S.Y. Zevin) Parshas Behaaloscah.