parsha of the week

When our lives are in the pillars of cloud and fire


When describing the pillar of cloud and the pillar of fire that accompanied the Israelites out of Egypt, the Torah tells us that the cloud did not leave during the day and the fire did not leave at night.

The phrase the Torah uses to express that the pillars never left is extremely uncommon — “Lo yamish.” It appears only one other time in the Torah in this format (Yehoshua never leaving the tent), once in the book of Yehoshua in a slightly different format (“lo yamush”) once in each format in Yeshayahu, and once in the book of Nachum in the form of “lo yamish.”

It always refers to something not leaving or departing. And yet I wonder if there’s a deeper meaning behind the word, as well as if there is a difference to be gleaned from the distinction between Yamish and Yamush.

The Tosefta in Sanhedrin compares the appearance of Yamish in Shmot 33:11 — “G-d would speak to Moses face-to-face, just as a person speaks to a close friend. [Moses] would then return to the camp. But his aid, the young man, Joshua son of Nun, did not leave the tent” — to Yamush of Yehoshua 1:8: “This book of the Torah shall not leave your mouth; you shall meditate therein day and night, in order that you observe to do all that is written in it, for then will you succeed in all your ways and then will you prosper.”

While the Tosefta doesn’t distinguish between the two formats, it does say that as Yehoshua never left Moshe’s tent, due to his dedication to the study of Torah, certainly the missive in the book of Yehoshua is appropriate. Isn’t that “the Torah never leaves from your mouth” one of our long-term goals? Isn’t that the goal of paying all those tuition dollars?

What is fascinating is that the verse that describes Yehoshua’s not ever leaving the tent is preceded by Moshe’s clear communing with G-d (Who speaks to him through a cloud) at the entrance to his tent. The fact that Yehoshua was present and did not leave the tent indicated he had access to the very intimate conversations Moshe had with the Master of the world.

This is the same Yehoshua who is told by G-d, after the death of his teacher Moshe, that the Torah should never leave his mouth.

On the verse describing the movements of the pillars of clouds and fire, the commentaries mostly fall into three schools. One is that the Israelites were never left without protection — the cloud didn’t leave until the fire showed up, and the fire didn’t leave until the cloud returned (Pesikta, Mechilta, Rashi, Rabbenu Bachaye). This is the image Rabbi Yosef (a talmudic rabbi) used to explain to his wife the importance of lighting Shabbos candles before sunset — while the daytime clouds are still visible, the fire of Shabbos should be kindled!

A second school focuses on the grammatical differences between yamish and yamush. Funny enough, even those confident enough to chime in on the dikduk differ in understanding the tenses of yamish and yamush. Since I am not an expert in this field, I’ll leave it to you to look up Rashbam, Ibn Ezra (Peirush Ha’Arokh), and others.

The third school focuses on what the pillars did, or how they illuminated. Mechilta describes the cloud and fire as helping to illuminate tumah status. Netziv’s commentary in B’haalotkha suggests that the cloud illuminated like fire in the night. (It’s unclear to me if he wonders whether there was fire at all).

Beyond this, it’s worthy to note two outlying comments. Ibn Ezra, in his peirush hakatzar claims the clouds were only present through the splitting of the sea. His proof is that there are other mentions of clouds appearing, both at Sinai and with the inauguration of the Mishkan. As a result, it seems the cloud had a very specific time-limited purpose.

We also have the Bal HaTurim, who jumps on the connection of “lo yamish” here and in chapter 33, showing how Yehoshua’s dedication to study, to never leaving the tent of Torah, imitating the pillars which protected the Israelites, is what merited him to be the next true “shomer Yisrael.” If we think about it, through all rules of the world, by all rights Moshe’s own sons should have taken over for their father. But they never demonstrated Yehoshua’s dedication. They were unworthy.

And I think that is the message. There is an essential connection between the “lo yamish” of the clouds and fire and the “lo yamish” of Yehoshua from the tent which goes to the heart and soul of who we are as a people, which is also reflected in the “lo yamush” through which Yehoshua undertook his final life-calling.

Do we put in the time and dedication that it takes to become a leader of tomorrow? Do we make sure not to close off one opportunity before the next opportunity is in place and ready? Do we not only talk the talk of valuing Torah, but make sure it is constantly on our lips, something we talk about, delve into, discuss, to further enhance our understanding of it and dedication to it?

Most importantly, do we allow it to illuminate the parts of our life which are unclear? Some will argue all answers can be found in the Torah. Some argue some aspects of worldliness can be learned and gleaned from other sources. Some argue that everything should and must be seen through the prism of Torah.

Whichever approach is correct, let us be able to live a life in which the “lo yamish” and the “lo yamush” has the right impact, where, like from the cloud and fire, we can see and understand G-d’s imprint in the world, and like Yehoshua’s dedication, we can also dedicate ourselves wholly to the holiest pursuits of our existence.