an antique drawing of a great cloud hovering over the mishkan with israelites worshipping
"The Tabernacle in the Wilderness" from the 1890 Holman Bible

When clouds and fire carry us through trying times

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Numbers 8:1-12:16

Zechariah 2:14-4:7

In 1970, James Taylor wrote one of my favorite songs, “Fire and Rain.” Growing up, this was a song that I often listened to in the car with my parents and a song that we sang every summer around the fire at camp. Over the last few decades since it was first released, the song has become one of Billboard’s top 500 songs of all time. The lyrics speak about searching for meaning and presence under difficult and challenging circumstances. In an interview with the BBC, Taylor conveyed that the lyrics depicted stories in his own life as well as the lives of friends who suffered from depression and feeling alone and isolated.

I can’t help but think about these lyrics as we read Parashat Beha’alotecha. We find our ancestors at the beginning of their wandering through the wilderness, a place that is desolate and vulnerable: hot during the day, cold at night, a place where we are susceptible to attacks. The wilderness, or wherever we wander on our journey, is also a place where our faith can be called into question, a time when we are searching even yearning for God to be with us and to protect us. The Torah tells us that “on the day that the Mishkan (Tabernacle) was set up, the cloud covered the Tabernacle, the Tent of the Pact, and in the evening it rested over the Tabernacle in the likeness of fire until morning. It was always so: the cloud covered it, appearing as fire by night. And whenever the cloud lifted from the tent, the Israelites would set out, and at the spot where the cloud settled, there the Israelites camped. … On a sign from the Lord they made camp and on a sign from the Lord they broke camp” (Numbers 9:15-17, 23). On one level, the cloud and fire functioned as signs of when the Israelites should begin and end their journey. More powerfully, though, they served as an eternal sign that God was present with them throughout their travels, protecting them from harm’s way, shading them from the hot sun during the day and warming them during the cold desert nights.

In his commentary on the Torah, Nachmanides (Ramban, 13th century Spain) explains that the function of the cloud and the fire was God’s way of demonstrating Divine love for the Jewish people. He goes on to teach that God wanted the people to feel God’s mercy no matter what they faced on their difficult journey. And while a piece of the protection was from the natural world, it was also a sign of reassurance in those moments when a person’s faith is challenged. Even if we can’t see God, feeling God’s omnipresence helps us feel a little less alone.

I think that one of the most difficult challenges that we face in the modern, complicated world that we live in is experiencing God’s presence in our lives, especially in life’s most harrowing moments. For some, the notion that God still watches over us from above — when the sky is blue, the sun is shining, when we gaze out over the bay, or feel the drops of rain shower down on us bringing about new life — is a wonderful way of experiencing God in our midst. For others, we need something more tangible: being surrounded by family, friends, or community in moments when we need them the most, guiding us through the days or holding us at night.

Toward the end of Taylor’s song, he sings “Been walking my mind to an easy time, my back turned towards the sun, Lord knows when the cold wind blows it’ll turn your head around. Well, there’s hours of time on the telephone line to talk about things to come, sweet dreams and flying machines in pieces on the ground. Oh, I’ve seen fire and I’ve seen rain, I’ve seen sunny days that I thought would never end, I’ve seen lonely times when I could not find a friend, but I always thought that I’d see you, baby, one more time again.”

I admit that there are times when I question God’s existence in the world, especially when it feels like I’m wandering aimlessly. Yet, if I pause and look hard enough, I can usually experience God’s presence even if just for a moment in nature, within, or in community. And in times when the cloud and fire are seemingly absent, in those lonely times, let us work toward emulating God, helping guide others, one more time again.

Rabbi Corey Helfand
Rabbi Corey Helfand

Rabbi Corey Helfand is the spiritual leader of Peninsula Sinai Congregation in Foster City. He can be reached at [email protected].