One of the many beautiful aspects of the Torah is its ability to pull no punches, so to speak. The Torah can tell it like it is, and we see a wide range of emotions and circumstances on display in this week’s parshah, B’haalot’cha. “And it came to pass in the second year, in the second month, on the twentieth day of the month, that the cloud was taken up from over the tabernacle of testimony” (Num. 10:11). Let us unpack this for a moment. The people of Israel have been at Sinai for ten months and nineteen days, and now the journey toward the Holy Land can begin. They have been gone from Egypt for over a year now. But, how did the people of Israel know that it was,indeed, the right time to set forth on this journey from Sinai toward Moab and the Promised Land? It turns out that the cloud that we just spoke of was how G-d manifested Himself as protector and guide over the Tabernacle. Numbers 9:17 tells us, “And whenever the cloud was taken up from over the Tent, then after that the children of Israel journeyed; and in the place where the cloud abode, there the children of Israel encamped” The people of Israel had G-d in cloud form telling them when they should pack up and travel, and also when it was appropriate to halt and set up camp. This is not the first time we have heard of G-d’s presence via a cloud. If we look back to Exodus 13:21, we remember, “And the Lord went before them by day in a pillar of cloud to guide them…” The Torah also makes it clear that during the night, when clouds are generally not as visible, the Lord manifested as fire, perhaps a la the bush that Moses saw burning unconsumed.
The Talmud tells us of glorious clouds that guided the people of Israel in the wilderness, raising the lowlands, lowering the highlands, and even killing dangerous animals such as scorpions and snakes on the road before them (Mek, Be-shallah, Va-yehi 1; Num. R. 1:1). The Aggadic writings talk of a beam of light issuing from the cloud, perhaps like lightning, which indicated the appropriate direction in which to journey next. Do any of us wish that we could have such a physical manifestation of the Divine’s presence in our own day-to-day lives? The cloud that guided the people of Israel through the wilderness–can we find a version of this Divinity in our own experiences? Do we seek the light of the Lord from outside of ourselves, within ourselves, or both? Sometimes, we can feel as if Divinity is with us, or that G-d is communicating with us, almost as Moses–”With him [Moses] do I speak mouth to mouth” (Num. 12:8). Mouth to mouth or face to face–”peh el peh” in Hebrew. Moses was said to speak to God in the most direct manner of all of the prophets–never actually seeing an image of G-d, but having the clearest communication of all. In other times we might feel as if we do not feel G-d’s presence with us at all.
As I alluded to earlier, the Torah has a unique ability to tell it like it is. Even with a Divine cloud guiding the way, clearing the path, and turning to fire by night, the people of Israel, for lack of a more appropriate term, began to “kvetch.” The people began complaining about the food: “we have nought but this manna to look to” (Num. 11:6). The Israelites even went so far as to reflect upon their days of slavery in Egypt with longing: “We remember the fish…the cucumbers, and the melons, and the leeks, and the onions, and the garlic” (Num. 11:5). Moses himself, overcome with the burden of the people and the constant complaining, began to unravel a bit in this parshah. “Wherefore hast Thou dealt ill with Thy servant? And wherefore have I not found favour in thy sight, that Thou latest the burden of all this people upon me? (Num. 11:11). Even in the holiest of times, and amidst a direct line of communication with G-d, Moses has “had it” with the people, and is questioning his prophetic role. Even the seemingly steadfast Aaron and Miriam begin to show uncharacteristic jealousy regarding Moses. After suddenly complaining about Moses’ choice of a wife, they said, “Hath the Lord indeed spoken only with Moses? Hath He not spoken with us also?” (Num. 13:2). The Midrash tells us that Moses was too meek to stand up for himself, so G-d decided to defend him. Miriam became leprous, and with Moses’ help, she was eventually cured. “El na r’fah nah lah” or, “Heal her now, O God, I beseech Thee” (Num. 12:13). As a side note, you may recognize these words from a new song we have been introduced to that we might sing in place of the Mi Shebeirach on Friday nights. “El nah r’fah nah lah l’refuah sh’leimah”–”G-d please heal her, for a complete healing.”
What to take from all of this? A direct sign of G-d’s presence and direction among the people of Israel still did not quell the very human feelings of unrest, hunger, idealization of the past, and jealousy. We see sibling rivalry, and eventually we return to Moses’ characteristic humility and caring for others, evident in his plea for Miriam’s life. Parshah B’haalot’cha feels almost like a microcosm of life itself. There are moments when we, in our own lives, feel guided along by the Divine presence, and we can remain flexible and willing to do what we feel called to do. We also face many moments of frustration, uncertainty, and even anger. There are times when we might feel G-d “peh el peh,” and moments when we just feel hungry for the earthly meat of Mitzrayim. Life can seem chaotic, troublesome, and full of trials and tribulations. At the end of B’haalot’cha, the Israelite people do make their way from Sinai and set up camp in the wilderness of Paran.
After all of the very human ordeals–the struggling with G-d (Israel), and with one another, G-d still leads the way from one place to the next, from one moment to another. We are human, and we are imperfect. It might be helpful to remember that even when we are busy being imperfect, the cloud and fire is always with us, guiding us along the way. We can miss G-d’s presence, especially if we are too busy looking down at earthly squabbles to notice. Our Mishkan T’Filah says, “Days pass, and the years vanish, and we walk sightless among miracles…let there be moments when Your Presence, like lightning, illumines the darkness in which we walk. Help us to see, wherever we gaze, that the bush burns unconsumed” (p. 53).
May we all be blessed with patience and perspective, so that we might have more beautiful moments of “peh el peh” with one another, and with our very own manifestation of the Divine.