Ours is a sick world, lacking real values and desperately in need of serious repair.
Understanding why this is and what role, if any, we have in repairing it requires understanding a paradox found in this week’s Torah portion. Consider, therefore, these verses:
“And when the cloud was taken up from the tent, only then did the Children of Israel journey; and wherever the cloud rested, there the Children of Israel encamped…. As long as the cloud rested above the tabernacle, they remained encamped.” (See Numbers 9:17-18.)
Seriously, if we had been there and seen this cloud leading us around day in and day out, what else could we think but that it was God’s personal messenger?
The paradox emerges further on in the parashah when we see Moses pleading with his father-in-law to be Israel’s “eyes,” guiding it to the Promised Land. (See Numbers 10:31.) Why hire a human guide when God’s cloud was hanging around?
Israel adds to the paradox when, towards the end of this week’s parashah, the people begin a series of revolts against Moses — and in a sense, against God. How could they do that, with God’s cloud hanging over their heads like that?
We who read about this cloud today could resolve the paradox by saying there really was no cloud; it is a made-up story. That, however, would mean the Torah was lying to us and that is simply not acceptable. The Torah is the legitimate revealed word of God; it does not lie. The cloud was there, so we are left with Moses hiring a guide and the impending rebellions.
That forces us to conclude instead that the problem is not with the text, but with Israel itself.
This is a people for whom great miracles were done, yet when Moses was out of sight, they rejected the miracles and made for themselves a golden calf.
They who could walk through a parted sea one day, and the next day demand to know who will be serving them their beverages and catering their meals.
They are not even convinced any longer that they had witnessed any miracles. They have managed to rationalize them, seeing them perhaps as merely being fortuitous natural events.
They believe only what they can both see and understand. They can see a person. They understand a golden calf. They cannot, however, see God, much less understand God.
Moses wants a human guide for the journey so that the people can feel secure in knowing there is someone leading them who knows the way.
Moses did this on his own. There is no hint that he consulted God first, or that God told him to do it. He did it because he knew this was what Israel wanted or needed. By giving in to Israel, however, he was also sending an unintended message to the people: Even Moses does not really have faith in that cloud.
In Parashat Chukat, which we will read on July 1, the people thirst for water. Moses and Aaron stand before them, and Moses says, “shall we get water for you out of this stone?” Saying “we” instead of “God” cost him dearly. Says God: “Because you did not…sanctify Me in the eyes of the Children of Israel, therefore you shall not bring this congregation into the land which I have given them.” (See Numbers 20:12.)
That is a very harsh punishment for a single mistake. Now, however, we see that it was not an isolated incident. There were other times when Moses, albeit inadvertently, failed to sanctify God. Hiring an earthly guide when God was already on the job through that very visible cloud is but one such incident. Saying “we” instead of “God” was only the last straw.
We are still left with a problem, though. Israel may need to see to believe, but that cloud is there to be seen at all hours of the day or night (when it turns into a pillar of fire). Unlike all those other miracles, this one is not so easy to explain away. How could Moses think that Israel would not believe what was there for all to see?
Actually, he does not believe that. Rather, he finally has figured Israel out.
He had asked God to lead them (see Exodus 32 and 33) and God does so through that cloud, but now Moses knows that Israel does not want to be led by a cloud, something the coming rebellions confirms. The cloud is a constant reminder that God is in Israel’s midst, and Israel does not want so blatant and constant a reminder of that.
Israel prefers deniability to accountability. It wants its special relationship with God, but not the responsibilities that come with it. By hiring a guide for them, Moses thereby denied Israel what it needed for its future.
There was never any need for either a cloud or a human guide to show Israel how to get to Canaan. Just head east on a road that was already very well-travelled. The cloud was there to show Israel the way, not in the physical sense of the route to Canaan, but in the spiritual sense. If Israel is to get to where it is supposed to go — in other words, if it is to fulfill its sacred mission — it can go only in the direction God tells it to go. It cannot go off on its own.
That is the lesson that Israel never wanted to learn. By his actions, Moses helped them to not learn it. Because that generation did not learn it, no other subsequent generation until today has learned it. We still do not want to be led by that cloud. We still do not want to travel on the road God wants us to take, because we do not want the burden it entails.
None of us wants to be reminded of our mission as God’s chosen examples to the world about how life should be lived. None of us wants to carry that burden on our shoulders. We think it is too heavy for us.
Well, someone has to carry that burden. The values of our world are all twisted out of shape. The last century began with Kishinev and ended with Kosovo, with the Shoah looming large over it all. This century began with Darfur, Afghanistan, and Syria, and we have since added the sadly ongoing conflicts in Sudan, Myanmar, Ethiopia, Yemen, Mali, and Ukraine.
In far too many places in this country, we have two de facto educational systems — one basically for the whites and one basically for people of color. We have two kinds of policing — one for the whites and one for people of color.
Covid-19 is a virus, not a racist. It does not look only for black people to infect, yet they are more likely than people who are white to be infected. It is our inadequate health system that covertly discriminates.
In some states, especially Florida and Texas, school children are not even allowed to be taught anything about racism, and especially not the dark history of this country when it comes to the indigenous tribes of North America, Black enslavement in the South, and the Jim Crow laws after the Civil War.
According to the Gun Violence Archive website, there were at least 306 children up to age 11 who were killed by gunfire in 2022. Another 1,323 children between the ages of 12 and 17 died that way. Adding children injured in shootings to the number of deaths and we get 6,023 children up to age 17 who were victims of gun violence in 2022 — the highest number of children killed or injured by guns in a single year since the website began keeping track in 2013. So far this year, as of June 4, 770 children 17 and under have died by the gun, while another 1,955 have been injured. Overall, there have been 275 mass shootings here so far this year, resulting in 327 deaths (just over two a day on average) and 1,051 people injured (or just under seven every day).
No other people have in their charter the mission to minister to the world, to help make it a better place. We do — by the example of how we live our lives. We need to get on with our task.
God’s cloud led our ancestors from Egypt to Canaan, but because Moses hired a guide, they thought they were following a person, not God, and that literally makes all the difference in the world — and for the world.
If we are to live in a better, more just, more equitable world, we have to lead the way. That is our job — and that means following that cloud. It means following the path God set out for us at Sinai: “And you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” (See Exodus 19:6.)
Shammai Engelmayer is a rabbi-emeritus of Congregation Beth Israel of the Palisades and an adult education teacher in Bergen County. He is the author of eight books and the winner of 10 awards for his commentaries. His website is www.shammai.org.