In the Torah, the cloud represents a fascinating symbol. For example, the word for “cloud” is not found in the creation story or even during the flood. Instead, “cloud” first appears after the flood, when G-d says that, in the future, when the bow appears in the cloud, He will remember not to destroy mankind.
But then the word for cloud does not appear again in the text – not until the Exodus is underway, when the Jews are led by a pillar of cloud. And then the cloud – whether in the sky or formed from incense – remains with us through the end of Moses’ life. And it carries a fascinating symbolism, because the cloud never rains. It is never a mere cloud; it is always something else. In all cases it is never about rain but is instead about supernatural events: the Flood and the Exodus, survival in the desert, and the delivery of G-d’s words to Moses.
Instead of physical rain, the cloud offers something quite different: spiritual rain. For within the cloud is G-d’s presence, with His words resonating from within. These words are our Torah, the spiritual sustenance that has kept the Jewish people for 3500 years. The cloud delivers what Jews need to make our lives meaningful: words, ideas, thoughts, concepts and hope. These words guide us toward a spiritually fulfilling life just as surely as rain clouds help people achieve a materially-rich one.
The cloud seems to be a way for the people to comprehend G-d’s existence, even though He, as opposed to all other known deities in the ancient world, had no apparent physical manifestation (e.g. sun, moon, water, etc.). The cloud seems to be a crutch, training wheels for people who by themselves are resistant to hearing Moses or G-d any other way. So the cloud is explained to Moses as an aid for his own efforts to share G-d’s words:
And the LORD said to Moses, “I will come to you in a thick cloud, in order that the people may hear when I speak with you and so trust you ever after.”
We know that the Torah never tells us of G-d having a physical form. But the cloud seems to be in-between, a mediator or buffer, a veil between G-d and the people. When G-d talks to Moses, He does from inside the cloud. But even that buffer seems insufficient for others: when the elders prophecy, they do it from a spirit that Moses lends them from his access to the cloud. The only time G-d in the cloud speaks to anyone else, he criticizes Aharon and Miriam for speaking ill of Moses’ wife – and the result is that Miriam is stricken with a spiritual illness. Nobody but Moses could handle the proximity to G-d’s voice. Even the incense cloud in the tabernacle is used to protect the priests from the proximity to G-d:
The LORD said to Moses: Tell your brother Aaron that he is not to come at any time into the Shrine behind the curtain, in front of the cover that is upon the ark, lest he die; for I appear in the cloud over the cover. … He shall put the incense on the fire before the LORD, so that the cloud from the incense screens the cover that is over [the Ark of] the Pact, lest he die.
Why a cloud? A cloud is a metaphor for G-d: we know it is there, but we cannot really see, touch, smell, or hear it. A cloud is neither solid not liquid; it is perceptible but indistinct. It makes sense that when connecting the divine presence to mankind, there needs to be something in between, something that masks the senses and allows for us to be in close proximity. The cloud is a bit like the cover on a Sukkah, the Western Wall, or the veil of a prayer shawl: we can get closer to the spirit on the other side because of that intermediate layer that shields us, forcing us to reach out with non-physical sensitivity. Above all, the meaning of the cloud is found because of the words that come from it.
We read of a cloud with Noah, and then again at the Exodus: the cloud in the Torah is always connected to the divine, to a relationship between man and G-d. The first cloud, after the Flood, contains a promise. And so does the cloud in the Exodus and the wilderness: a repeated promise of G-d’s intention to protect the people. Indeed, when G-d at one point wants to destroy the people and start over, Moses reminds Him of this specific attribute of the cloud: a promise of G-d’s power and protection:
Moses said to the LORD, “When the Egyptians, from whose midst You brought up this people in Your might, hear the news, they will tell it to the inhabitants of that land. Now they have heard that You, O LORD, are in the midst of this people; that You, O LORD, appear in plain sight when Your cloud rests over them and when You go before them in a pillar of cloud by day and in a pillar of fire by night. If then You slay this people to a man, the nations who have heard Your fame will say, ‘It must be because the LORD was powerless to bring that people into the land He had promised them on oath that He slaughtered them in the wilderness.’ (Num. 14)
The cloud used in the first promise to mankind is a reminder to both man and G-d, of G-d’s promises.
But the text also comes with a warning: the cloud is not meant to be studied. The text tells us to avoid divination, and the word used is the very same as the word for cloud (in a verb form). Ancient (and modern!) pagan seers and priests have all kinds of ways to make sense of the world: divination includes everything from reading palms and tea leaves, to interpreting bundles of sticks, ink in water or crystal balls. Cloud gazing is a method of scrying using clouds in the sky. And the Torah tells us emphatically that we should never do that.
Why not? Because the cloud is meant to be heard and not seen! G-d’s words are here to interact with our souls, to make us closer to G-d. But cloud-gazing is trying to see G-d in nature, where He is not found. The spiritual value we can derive is by listening, not by seeing.
Those nations that you are about to dispossess do indeed resort to cloud-gazers and augurs; to you, however, the LORD your God has not assigned the like. The LORD your God will raise up for you a prophet from among your own people, like myself [Moses]; him you shall heed.
This is a command to Jews for all time: we are to find G-d in words, never in visual signs, in hearing and not seeing.
When Moses dies, the outdoor cloud goes when Moses does. Nobody else ever hears G-d as distinctly again, so there is nobody who could work with a cloud in the first place. More than this: if the wilderness was a training session to wean us from slavery to freedom, then the cloud was a crutch, divine training wheels that helped us become comfortable with a G-d who had almost no discernable physical manifestation. The post-wilderness relationship is with a G-d who has no physical manifestation at all, not even a cloud. From Moses’ death to the present, G-d in the world resides in the tabernacle and in each person’s soul – we can hear Him only in those two places.
[an @iwe, @susanquinn, @kidcoder, @blessedblacksmith and @eliyahumasinter work!]
P.S. Note that the first command not to eat blood is given to Noach (Gen. 9:4) the same time the first cloud is mentioned – and the prohibition on eating blood is paired with the prohibition on cloud-gazing: “You shall not eat anything with its blood. You shall not practice divination or cloud-gazing. (Lev. 19:26)
There is a connection here: the cloud is meant to be a source of spiritual sustenance through the words that emanate from it, not physical sustenance. Animal blood is the inverse: we eat them for physical sustenance, but we must not bring their spirits, in the form of their blood, into our bodies.
The Torah tells us the spirit of an animal is in its blood. Pagan religions largely agree – which is why pagans deliberately consume the blood of animals. But the Torah is telling us to stay in our lane: we are meant to aspire to change, but that change is not toward becoming more like an animal, or in any other way farther away from G-d. We must not eat blood, and we must not cloud-gaze. Even the rainbow is supposed to be seen by G-d and not necessarily by man: “When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and all living creatures, all flesh that is on earth.”