Why did God guide us out of Egypt with a pillar of fire in front and a cloud of darkness behind?
Table for Five: Beshalach
In partnership with the Jewish Journal of Los Angeles
Edited by Salvador Litvak, the Accidental Talmudist
It came between the camp of Egypt and the camp of Israel and there were cloud and darkness — while it illuminated the night — and one did not draw near the other all the night
— Ex. 14:20
Elan Javanfard L.M.F.T., Professor & Author, Psycho-Spiritual Insights blog
The Gemara in Megillah 10b discusses Rabbi Yohanan’s understanding of the words “and one did not draw near the other all the night.” He explains that the ministering angels wanted to sing their song to Hashem, but Hashem stopped them saying my creations are being drowned – showing us that Hashem does not rejoice at the downfall of even the wicked. The Or HaChaim writes that for this exact reason we do not say full Hallel on the 7th day of Pesach.
Not rejoicing in the suffering of your enemies suggests an ability to empathize with others, even those you may consider adversaries. Empathy involves understanding and sharing the feelings of others, even if you don’t agree with them or despise them. Empathy becomes a beacon of light during the storm, guiding us through difficult times with the power to heal, connect, and remind us that, even in darkness, understanding one another’s struggles can be the illumination that leads us to shared strength. Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks writes, “Empathy is not a lightweight, touchy-feely, add-on extra to the moral life. It is an essential element in life.” Hashem is providing us a powerful lesson on how cultivating empathy brings us closer to others and ultimately towards him. Let us take the opportunity to follow in his ways.
Sarah Pachter, Author and Speaker
When I think about the two clouds that protected the Jews in the desert and their function, it reminds me of two parents protecting their children. The clouds blocked Egyptian arrows sent towards the Jews. The clouds gave personal attention based on individual needs. And the clouds provided illumination, while also darkening the way for the Egyptians. This is similar to parenthood. We protect, attend to, and illuminate the correct path for our children.
The pasuk states, “and one did not draw near the other all the night.” The clouds did not interfere with one another, working together. This is an important tenet in parenting. A couple may get along great…until the dynamics of raising a child begin. It starts during infancy: “Don’t hold him that way- it’s too rough!” As the child grows, the stakes get higher. (Little kids, little problems; big kids, big problems.) Teens may play their parents against one another, or parent shop to get their desired answer.
A renowned therapist shares one easy way to prevent interference. “I’m blowing you a kiss” is a code couples can use to enhance their shalom bayit. It means “Let’s talk about this at another time” or “Let’s not undermine each other in front of the children.” This helps the couple navigate the situation smoothly and inconspicuously.
The clouds of glory attended to the needs of the Jewish people, while working together in harmony. May Hashem’s protection only grow in strength during these challenging times for Jews worldwide.
Rabbi Adam Kligfeld, Senior Rabbi, Temple Beth Am
The full corpus of Jewish wisdom is endlessly interwoven. “Zeh el zeh”, the Hebrew for the words “one…near the other” is evocative of Isaiah’s image–canonized in daily prayer– of the heavenly angels host “to one another,” giving permission to one another, to proclaim God as holy. Spiritual life is meant to be intimate, partnered, experienced in unity, with voices and souls joined together in sacred purpose.
The presence of light in the Israelite camp, and the absence of light for the Egyptians, is resonant of the 9th plague, when darkness made it so that “no one could see his brother.” To remove the light that permits humans to be in relationship is indeed a life-robbing plague, rather close to the death itself in the 10th plague.
In our verse, the Israelites/Jews are at war. With a ruthless enemy, a tyrant that will pursue them/us until our demise. God imposes separation, darkness and the absence of contact upon these Biblical terrorists in what Kierkegaard may have described as a teleological suspension of the ethical. In order to coax the world back to its normal state, where brothers and neighbors and even adversaries bathe in the same light, and even find ways to meet across vast ideological divides, sometimes there must first be a brutal removal of normative living circumstances. It may be the only way to defeat evil.
But still we pray, every day, that we–all of us–will emulate the angels. And be, and bestow honor, “zeh el zeh”, upon one another. Living among one another. Sharing the same land and light.
Rabbanit Alissa Thomas-Newborn, BCC/ Rabbanit and Chaplain / Congregation Netivot Shalom and a hospital in NYC
Our verse speaks about the pillar of fire and the cloud of darkness, which God used to protect B’nai Yisrael. The Mekhilta offers a parable: A parent and child are walking a path, with the child walking in front. Suddenly robbers attack them, so the parent moves to stand in front of the child. Then wild animals come from the back, so the parent moves behind the child. When the robbers and wild animals attack simultaneously from in front and behind, the parent picks up the child, shielding the child while fighting off the external threats.
This is how God guided us out of Egypt, with the pillar of fire in front and the cloud of darkness behind. God as our Parent picks us up and fights off our enemies, showing us that we can fight and win against evil. As parents, it is hard to digest that we cannot shield our children from every “attack” in life. But we can and should strive to prevent unnecessary pain– for our children and for our wider human family. This is part of how we defeat evil as a free and moral people. With our parsha and the Mekhilta’s parable in mind, we pray that God– our Ultimate Parent– once again protects us as He did when we left Egypt. May the hostages return home, swiftly and safely; may our brave soldiers be protected with a safe embrace; and may Am Yisrael and Medinat Yisrael be surrounded with peace and security on all sides.
Sara Blau, Author of 30 books
In today’s healing-obsessed society, one can come to the mistaken conclusion that a life of “healing” will yield a life free of struggles and challenges. Similarly, when one is on a journey of spiritual growth and fulfillment, one can come to the mistaken conclusion that a life of spirituality will yield a life free of struggles and challenges.
That could not be further from the truth.
In this week’s Torah Portion of Parshat Beshalach, the verse describes G-d’s protective cloud and pillar of fire that surrounded the Jews. “It came between the camp of Egypt and the camp of Israel and there were cloud and darkness — while it illuminated the night — and one did not draw near the other all the night — Ex. 14:20
To explain the cloud and fire, Rashi shares a parable of a man traveling with his son who encounters bandits and wolves along the way. Regardless of the scenario, the father does what it takes to protect his son. The journey of the Jews is symbolic of the journey of life, a journey to Torah and to a heightened connection with G-d. Life, even filled with spirituality and meaning, is not guaranteed to be free of struggle. On the contrary, struggle is to be expected. However, G-d Himself is right at your side, ready to protect you and lift you up like a loving father. You will have your setbacks – but Someone’s got your back. So keep focused on your destination.
Image: “The Israelites’ encampment in the wilderness: God manifests in a cloud” by J.J. Derghi, 1866
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