What’s your special cloud?

Night-Shining Clouds are Getting Brighter
Night-Shining Clouds are Getting Brighter by NASA Goddard Photo and Video is licensed under CC-BY 2.0

Davar Vayakhel-Pekude 5783

Saturday, March 18, 2023

The Kotzke Rebbe taught that G-d dwells wherever we let G-d in. Yet, this week’s parsha appears to end with a contradictory metaphor. The Chabad.org translation of the last verses in Exodus 40 is: “(33) He [Moses] set up the courtyard all around the Mishkan and the altar, and he put up the screen at the entrance to the courtyard; and Moses completed the work. (34) And the cloud covered the Tent of Meeting and the glory of the Lord filled the Mishkan.  35) Moses could not enter the Tent of Meeting because the cloud rested upon it and the glory of the Lord filled the Mishkan.”

G-d dwells wherever we let G-d in, but is it possible that G-d may not let us in a space where G-d dwells? The psalms echo our yearning to dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of our lives, especially Psalm 23, Verse 6. 

Clouds are a magnificent metaphor because now, thousands of years later, we know that we can fly through clouds. The horizontal metaphor G-d in religion is that G-d is up there as an old man in a cloud and we are down here is for cartoons and fairy tales.

The “Charlie Brown Rain Cloud Effect” derives from “the metaphor of Charlie Brown, the Charles Schulz comic strip character, who seems to always travel with a rain cloud permanently hovering atop him” and has become a legal principle explained by Robert Caplan in the Capital University Law Review, August 24, 2010.  

Joni Mitchell wrote “Both Sides Now” in 1966 and included the poignant “So many things I would have done / But clouds got in my way” and “It’s cloud illusions I recall / I really don’t know clouds at all.”

If G-d is telling us that we are b’tzelem elohim, in G-d’s image, and G-d sometimes needs space and yet it is all good, then perhaps we need to have the confidence that G-d might not always have us in the same space with G-d, and yet it is all good, that G-d’s presence is still among us.

JTS Rabbinic Student Rami Schwartzer (now a Conservative Rabbi) pondered this question in a post on Pekudei on March 11, 2016 for the Jewish Theological Seminary. [Now] Rabbi Schwartzer first quotes Nachmanides’ self-admittedly inadequate explanation that Moses could not enter without permission, “But if God were to call him, then he may come into the cloud just like he did on Mount Sinai.” Rabbi Schwartzer goes on to pose his own hypothesis: “God simply was not ready.” Hence, Pekudei is followed by the opening of Leviticus with Vayikra, “and He [G-d] called Moses inside.”

It is akin to the title of Rabbi Lawrence Kushner’s autobiography: I’m G-d; You’re Not. 

As a chaplain, how often have families challenged me at the most stressful moments with variations of where is G-d and why is G-d doing this to us now? Perhaps at these moments it is better to let G-d have a little distance, let the melachim, G-d’s angels as chaplains, friends, and family, do more of the heavy lifting. G-d will be closer again when G-d and we are ready. 

This parsha comes just a few weeks after Purim, where G-d’s presence is not overtly in the Megillah, where more of the heavy lifting is done by the actors in the story, and yet we know G-d is probably somewhere behind the scenes and we will be closer again.

This parsha also comes this year one day before the yahrzeit for my first wife (Z”L).  Perhaps HaShem could not be closer at the time of that loss because of the need for others to teach me that their presence might be just as powerful. 

I believe it was Rabbi Hayim Donin in To Raise a Jewish Child who offers an explanation of why a parent needs to teach a child to swim: so that the child learns how to survive in a hostile environment (i.e., water over your head) and the parents learn when to hold on and when to let go.

Perhaps we are seeing the same in this strange metaphor at the end of Exodus 40:  there are times when G-d or your parents is not holding on tightly but the presence is nearby and let that be reassuring.

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