Beha’alotcha: Cloud of Glory

Be Here Now

Why was our journey through the desert so unpredictable?

Table for Five: Beha’alotcha

In partnership with the Jewish Journal of Los Angeles

 Edited by Salvador Litvak, the Accidental Talmudist

Whether it was for two days, a month or a year, that the cloud lingered to hover over the Mishkan, the children of Israel would encamp and not travel, and when it departed, they traveled.

Num. 9:22



Judy Gruen, Author of “The Skeptic and the Rabbi: Falling in Love With Faith.”

Traveling can be exhausting. We can fly across the country or the world in mere hours, but we still must plan and pack, get to the airport, deal with long security lines, and sit near annoying passengers. When we arrive at a vacation destination, we hope to at least unwind for a week or two.

At first glance, our ancestors traveling in the desert had all the challenges of travel but none of the advantages. God told them, via the movement of the cloud, when and where they were going, and for how long. They had no choice in the matter. The Ramban observed that they sometimes arrived at an unpleasant place and wanted to leave immediately, but were stuck there for a long while. Conversely, our ancestors could arrive at a lovely, refreshing place, hoping to linger and relax, but had to move again after only a few days. These travels continued to test them as individuals and as a community.

God is not capricious, so what was the lesson here? Where was the blessing?

Our lives are frequently disrupted, our plans delayed or even uprooted. Despite the unknowns, we thrive when we prioritize Torah learning, mitzvot, and continue planning for our futures. The Lubavitcher Rebbe observed that every one of our “stations” in life has significance, even when we are there for a very brief period, seemingly “on the way” to some other place. Each station carries its own potential for spiritual and personal growth.


Yael W. Mashbaum, Middle School Director, Sinai Akiba Academy

This pasuk conjures beautiful imagery: God’s cloud securing the Israelites in a protective bubble until it is time for them to move on in the desert. Sometimes it could take two days, several months, or even years for the next part of the journey to commence.

Sforno reminds us that this is the fifth time the Torah explicitly belabors the subject of these journeys. He proposes that this frequency alerts us to the unplanned nature of the Israelites’ time in the desert. Sometimes the people did not even have time to send their animals to graze, whereas on other occasions they had time to dismantle everything, having to abandon any plans they had made.

Doesn’t this mirror life? Our journeys are not entirely straightforward or linear. We meander, take longer at some stops than others, not usually knowing how quickly we will make a decision that changes our course. All the while, we hope for protection and guidance from God. We hope to have a “feeling” or see a “sign” that it is the right time to move to a new job, to buy a home, to make a major decision for our family.

Through this verse, the Torah is teaching us that when our lives feel harried or hectic, it is by design, the norm rather than the exception. The Israelites’ lives outside of Egypt were marked with inconsistency and learning to be resilient and flexible. May we feel God’s presence as we navigate our own journeys.


David Brandes, Screenwriter of The Quarrel

Was God playing a game of “Simon says” with the Israelites? When the cloud lingers you march. When it lifts you stay in place. No negotiations. Why would God treat his chosen people this way?

Consider the context. For 200 years, more or less, the Israelites suffered in demeaning slavery. Where was God? The people must have felt abandoned. I would have…. Finally, finally God hears their suffering and sends redemption. But being set free doesn’t make one free emotionally. The people had to learn to trust that God would not abandon them again. The cloud was a manifestation of God’s presence. When it lifted, the people probably re-experienced abandonment anxiety. When God commanded them to move on it was a test – would God return?… He did. The cloud always returned back to the Mishkan. Giving the people physical and emotional rest.

And so it went; God’s manifestation lifting and settling. The people journeying and camping. And most importantly the people learning to trust that God would always return. It was an inspired form of behavioral therapy, well before its time, that helped the Israelites re-establish trust in God’s love and permanent commitment to his people.

One last question: Why was the “cloud of glory” the dominant symbol? Clouds rarely appear in the desert but when they do they are much welcomed. They are a harbinger of rain and sustenance. This “cloud of glory” stood tall, dominant, and protective – a symbol of God’s commitment to always be with his people.


Abe Mezrich, Author: Between the Mountain and the Land Lies the Lesson

The people must get to the Land. God wants them to get to the Land. “You have stayed long enough at this mountain” (Deuteronomy 1:6), God says to Moses. But here the people are, waiting on God.

Perhaps you know this feeling. There’s the place you were meant to be, and it isn’t here, and it’s calling you, and you don’t know if you’ll ever arrive at all. “Why are you holding me back?” you might demand of God.

It’s just these moments that this verse is trying to describe. The verse is saying: Sometimes it is God Himself who is coaxing you to stay. He is coaxing you to stay because in fact sometimes you need to wait days, months, years, to reach the Promised Land. He is coaxing you to stay because yes, the holy destination awaits but you must know that God is also to be found in the long sweltering desert you must crawl through on the way. You are waiting because there is a certain message you must hear from the voice of God. “Be here now,” God’s voice says. You, like God, can be present.


Mari Chernow, Senior Rabbi, Temple Israel of Hollywood

I lived in Arizona for eighteen years. During much of the year, Arizonans know instinctively to seek out one precious resource – shade. In day-to-day living, one finds great relief in shaded walkways, fields, pools, patios and parking spots. For those without protection, shade can make the difference between life and death.

While in some climates, clouds symbolize danger and darkness, in the desert they are life sustaining. They block the piercing sun and its harmful rays. It is no wonder, then, that God appears to the people as a cloud. Drops of water and crystals of ice suspended in air. A consistent source of comfort and reprieve. A sign that they need not pack up and move just yet, that they will be safe, whether it be for two days, a month, or a year.

To human beings, clouds seem to be halfway between heaven and earth. They mediate between us and the endless universe. They are constantly moving and changing shape. Impossible to capture. Godlike. Another feature of the desert is its magnificent open skies. Even the most oppressively hot day can come to an end with a bright red-orange-yellow or pink-purple sunset. Clouds add texture and depth to the already breath-taking beauty. The evening skyscape suggests eternity. Joni Mitchell was right. We really don’t know clouds at all. How blessed are we to catch so much as glimpse.


With thanks to Judy Gruen, Yael W. Mashbaum, David Brandes, Abe Mezrich, and Rabbi Mari Chernow


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