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Cloud Cover


Summer is here, and parents all over are readying their children for overnight camps. Suitcases are lovingly being packed with sufficient clothing and accessories to last through the summer, not to mention backpacks filled to the brim with assorted goodies and drinks. No parent would think of sending off their child without attending to all these details, ensuring the child’s health, comfort and safety.

For forty years, the Jewish people wandered in the desert, yet suffered no lack of food or comfort. The Manna fell daily, satisfying all their nutritional needs.  They had sufficient to drink, thanks to a rock that traveled with them, which flowed with fresh, sweet water. Additionally, the camp was surrounded on six sides by clouds of glory, to assure their physical safety in the treacherous wilderness.

Immediately following the death of Miriam, Moshe’s sister, the rock suddenly stopped providing water, so that there was nothing for the people to drink[1]. Rashi infers from this that for forty years, the well flowed in honor of Miriam[2], and in fact, it is referred to by the sages as “Miriam’s Well[3]“. Similarly, the clouds of glory vanished after the death of Aharon, leading to the conclusion that during his lifetime, the clouds appeared thanks to him[4]. By the same token, the Manna fell in honor of Moshe, and ceased after his death[5].

After Miriam’s death, the well was restored in the merit of Moshe, as detailed at length in the Torah portion of Chukat[6]. Yet there is no evidence in the Torah that the clouds of glory returned after the death of Aharon. Furthermore, the Jewish people complained vociferously about the lack of water[7], yet there is no mention of any disturbance on account of the missing clouds. Why were they not equally distraught over the loss of their source of protection and comfort in the desert?

One answer to this dilemma could be that after Aharon’s passing, they no longer needed the protection of the clouds. The clouds that surrounded the camp actually fulfilled a four-fold purpose: 1) to protect the Jewish people from the searing desert sun[8]; 2) to keep their clothing fresh and free of wrinkles[9]; 3) to lead the way through the desert[10];  4) to assure a safe and comfortable journey, by flattening mountains and raising up valleys, and killing serpents and scorpions in their path[11].

At the time of Aharon’s death, the Jewish people were nearly at the end of their wanderings in the desert. Thus, many of the objectives served by the clouds were no longer necessary. Aharon’s soul ascended to heaven on Hor Hahor, a mountain on the outskirts of the desert, on the border of the land of Edom[12]. The heat of the desert was less intense at its outer perimeter, close to occupied land.  Also, Aharon passed away on the first of Av[13]. The power of the sun peaks on the 15th of Av, and from that point on the weather grows progressively cooler[14]. Since they had enjoyed the cloud’s protection up until Aharon’s passing on the first of Av, it is possible that the air retained its coolness, and they no longer needed the weather regulation provided by the clouds.

As they approached inhabited territory, the Jewish people also had less need for the “laundering service” provided by the clouds. They could have easily purchased new garments from any of the established settlements. Also, they no longer needed the clouds as guides to show the way, as they already were in a settled area with carved roads and pathways. Finally, the snakes and scorpions that posed such a grave danger in the heart of the desert were far less of a threat on its outer edges.

However, in truth it is difficult to argue that the clouds were no longer needed after Aharon’s passing, for a number of reasons. The clouds lead the way not merely to prevent the Jewish people from getting lost in the desert. The purpose, rather, was to point out the direction that G-d wished them to take at each particular juncture[15].  Since they took quite a number of journeys after the death of Aharon, it is obvious that they still needed the guidance of the clouds of glory. The clouds, in addition to pointing out the direction, also indicated when and for how long the Jewish people would camp at any given location. When the clouds stopped, the people would stop and set up camp in that place, and remain there until the clouds would again signal that it was time to move on[16]. The Jewish people would rely on this instruction until they entered the land of Israel.

Rashi states explicitly that after Aharon’s death, the Jewish people traveled seven journeys in reverse – deeper into the desert[17]. Thus, it is obvious that the advantages of being on the outskirts of the desert, in terms of less severe weather and safer roads, did not necessarily apply.

The clouds also protected the Jews from wars with hostile nations. When the Amalekites instigated a war against the Jews, they were commanded to “Go out and wage war with Amalek[18]“. Rashi comments: “Go out from the clouds to fight them”.  As long as the Jews were enveloped in the protection of the clouds of glory, it was impossible for any nation to attack them. The clouds absorbed any missiles or arrows lobbed by enemies from outside[19]. The need for this protection did not abate noticeably after the death of Aharon.

A final, and most compelling proof that the clouds did, indeed, return after Aharon’s death is a verse in the Torah itself. After Aharon’s passing, there was an incident in which some Jews sinned by cohabiting with Midianite women. The sinners were identified when the cloud covering the camp peeled itself back over their heads, and the sun scorched them[20]. Thus the Torah indicates that the cloud cover reappeared after the death of Aharon.

We are therefore left with the original question: Why is there no mention in the Torah about the clouds of glory reappearing, and why did their disappearance not engender any protest by the Jews?

A close analysis of the references to the clouds in Rashi’s commentary reveals a slight inconsistency: In certain contexts, he refers to “clouds of glory”[21], while in other contexts, he refers to them simply as “clouds”[22]. In the Midrash, too, the clouds are at times referred to as “clouds of glory”[23] and other times only as “clouds”[24].

We can therefore explain that there actually were two types of clouds that accompanied the Jewish people on their travels through the desert. There were certain clouds whose purpose was solely for the glory of the Jewish people. The presence of these clouds was a testimony to the distinguished stature of the Jews people, and their cherished status in the eyes of G-d. These clouds did not serve any of the utilitarian functions described previously. Other, “ordinary” clouds carried out the services that were necessary for the survival of the Jewish people in the desert. Indeed, in all the places where Rashi refers to the functions of the clouds, the simple term “cloud” is used[25].

One place where Rashi uses the term “Clouds of Glory” is in reference to clothing[26]:  “The Clouds of Glory would wash their clothes and iron them; also, the clothes of the children grew along with them.” It would seem, then, that the term “Clouds of Glory” was used by Rashi to refer to the more pragmatic functions of the clouds. However, this service was not an essential one for their survival; the Jews could have easily washed their own clothes or replaced their worn out garments, using wool from the sheep that they took with them from Egypt. The fact that the Clouds of Glory kept their clothes fresh is an indication of special honor; not a requirement for existence, but an extra, additional mark of divine favor.

After Aharon’s death, the “Clouds of Glory” went away, and did not return. The other clouds, which the Jewish people depended on for survival, remained with them for the duration of their journeys through the desert.

When the well ceased flowing after Miriam’s death, it was restored in honor of Moshe. Why, then, did the Clouds of Glory not return in the merit of Moshe? To answer this question, it is important to understand the distinction between the roles of Aharon and Miriam, and the role of Moshe.

Aharon and Miriam were distinguished and beloved role models and teachers of the Jewish people. They were such outstanding individuals, that G-d graced the Jewish people with special favors in their merit. Moshe, on the other hand, was the “faithful shepherd” of the nation. He looked after the needs of his people just like a loving parent sending a child off on a journey. To him, it was not important in whose merit the Manna, the well and the clouds were granted. These were his people’s survival needs, and it was his job to guarantee that they be provided. He made sure that his people would be taken care of even after his death. Even after Moshe’s passing, the Jewish people suffered no lack of food or comfort[27]. The Clouds of Glory were not an essential survival need, and thus it was not necessary for Moshe to ensure their return.

In every generation, the Jewish people have been graced with leaders who demonstrated Moshe’s absolute and unceasing devotion. Even after their passing, the “shepherd does not desert his flock[28]“, and their influence and care continue to be felt. These leaders do not merely cast a benign eye from above, and use their supernal influence on behalf of their people. Rather, even in the earthly realm, we continue to appreciate their profound love and concern, through the ongoing effects of the deeds and activities that they initiated in their lifetime.

A scintillating example of a “faithful shepherd” in our era is the Previous Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Joseph I. Schneersohn. He demonstrated extreme self-sacrifice to keep Judaism alive in the Soviet Union, in the throes of the communistic regime. He displayed great heroism, and kept the chain of Jewish tradition from being sundered.  Today, three generations later, we are reaping the fruits of his efforts, as Russian Jewry experiences an unimaginable renaissance and rejuvenation.

Note: Although the Rebbe concluded his talk, in 1979[29], with a reference to the Previous Rebbe, his father-in-law[30], the prescience and inescapable relevance of his words are impossible to miss.  It is now seven years since the 3rd of Tammuz, 5754, when physically, the Rebbe’s presence was hidden from our eyes.  Yet despite the loss, the heartbreak and the yearning, it grows more obvious with each passing day that the Rebbe has not left us. The shepherd has not left his flock; his influence continues to guide us, and his radiance continues to shine over all our endeavors. The Rebbe’s sole mission and purpose, as he expressed it, was to prepare the entire world for the coming of Moshiach. He has infused us with his strength of purpose, and he continues to guide us, to implore and exhort from every one of us, to do our part.  No need of ours is as overwhelming and pressing as our need for Moshiach; and our faithful shepherd would not let this need go unfulfilled.

Based on addresses of the Rebbe, Motzei Shabbat Matot-Masei, Parshat Dvarim, and 15 Av, 5739 (1979)[31]

Adapted from the teachings of the Lubavitcher Rebbe by Chaya Shuchat.

[1] Chukat 20:2

[2] Rashi, ibid

[3] Taanit 9:1

[4] ibid, Mechilta Bshalach 16:35

[5] Bshalach, ibid.

[6] Chukat 20:2 and further

[7] ibid.

[8] Shulchan Aruch Harav, Orach Chaim Ch. 625, Yeshaya 4:6

[9] Rashi Ekev 8:4

[10] Bshalach 13:21

[11] Rashi Behaalotecha 10:34

[12] Chukat 20:23, Massei 33:37

[13] Massei 37:38

[14] Taanit 31:1

[15] Bshalach 13:21

[16] Behaalotecha 9:17 and further, Pekudai 40:36 and further

[17] Chukat 21:9

[18] Bshalach 17:9

[19] Yitro 19:4

[20] Chukat 25:4

[21] Emor 23,43, Chukat 20:29, 21:1, Pinchas 26:13, Masei 33:40, Ekev 8:4, 10:6

[22] Bshalach 17:9, Chukat 25:4, Behaalotecha 10:34 and other places

[23] Tanchuma, Bshalach 3, Bamidbar 12, Tosefta Sota 4:1, and more.

[24] Mechilta Bshalach 13:21, “there were seven clouds”.  Sifri Behaalotecha 10:34, Tanchuma Bamidbar 2, Zohar III, 302

[25] see footnotes above.

[26] Ekev 8:4

[27] Although the well no longer flowed, they were already at the banks of the Jordan River, which kept them well supplied with water.  The Manna also stopped falling, but they had sufficient Manna in reserves to keep them supplied for another fourteen years, until the land was fully settled.

[28] The words of the Previous Rebbe, in reference to his father, Rabbi Sholom Dovber, the 5th Lubavitcher Rebbe, in a letter marking the first anniversary of his father’s passing.  Published in Sefer Chachmei Yisroel, NY 5684 (1924), 33:1

[29] Note that this was over ten years before the fall of communism and the subsequent rebirth of active Judaism in the USSR.

[30] On the 12th of Tammuz, we celebrate the birthday of the Previous Rebbe.  It also marks the anniversary of his liberation from communist imprisonment.

[31] Likuttei Sichot XVIII, pp 253-261



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