This week we read about how Hashem saved B’nei Israel from the Egyptians, with the Splitting of the Sea. Just before describing the dramatic and fundamental events of Yam Suf, the Torah tells us of another, perhaps overlooked miracle:
And Hashem would ‘go in front of them’ by day with a Pillar of Cloud to show them the way, and by night with a Pillar of Fire to give light for them…
These miraculous and holy markers helped the nation travel safely and efficiently in their escape from Egypt- and would continue to accompany them for close to 40 years afterwards in the desert.* In addition to the practical purposes they served, the Pillars also teach us an important lesson.
The great Rabbi Shalom Noach Barzovsky, in his classic work Nesivos Shalom, shares his unique insight on this topic. We’ve paraphrased his thoughts below.
We read in Kohelet (Chapter 3) that there is a proper time for everything: love, hate, war, peace, and twenty-four other actions and feelings are listed over seven verses. One of the lessons we learn from this famous passage is to serve Hashem under all circumstances. Yes, we go through ups and downs, difficult times and joyous ones, yet we must not lose our ideals or change our focus; each and every experience is made to test and improve us, helping us towards reaching our goals. At the same time, different situations call for different courses of action. Within the confines of keeping the Torah without compromise, our approach to serving Hashem should adapt, to best deal with the circumstances at hand.
We know that there are two basic ways of relating to Hashem: Ahavat Hashem and Yirat Hashem, Love of Hashem and Fear of Hashem. Both are extremely important. As Ramban famously explains, the positive commandments are predicated on loving Hashem (as a positive, active deed at His command shows our desire to do His will and grow close to Him), while the prohibitions of the Torah are built on fearing Him (as they call for abstaining from doing what we’d prefer to do- primarily a function of fearing Hashem for His Greatness and for His justice). In this vein, we must always operate within the framework of both of these modes.
On another level, however, we must have an overarching ideal, a motive and inspiration, from which we work and for which we strive. In other words, we need to serve Hashem with a general path as well- and an effort to focus on either loving Hashem or fearing Him is a tremendous achievement. At the same time, one who always strives to fear Hashem is truly praiseworthy, while one dedicated to loving Him has attained the highest level of service.**
There is an interesting twist, though. The immediate emphasis of one’s work- really his or her inspiration, also depends on the situation one is facing.
There are two situations in which we must serve Hashem- times of ‘light’, and times of ‘darkness’. There are eras in which we can clearly see Hashem’s guiding of world events, and can rejoice in the open miracles He does for the Jewish People. There are also times of suffering, times in which we find it difficult to remember that everything happening is truly for our good. And just as we move between these two realities as a nation, so does each individual experience them. Some days it seems that everything is ‘smooth sailing’, as all goes according to plan. Work and school are productive and satisfying; prayer comes easily; Torah study is clear and inspiring; relationships are stress-free and rewarding. On other days, it can be hard to imagine that anything will ever come easily again. The boss is nasty and unfair; the study material is impossible to remember; it’s hard to enjoy the learning and prayer. In order to lead a successful life, we need to know how to navigate both types of circumstances. Each of these modes, ‘light’ and ‘darkness’, demand a specific perspective, a focus that will allow a person to stay the course, serving Hashem to the best of his or her ability.
In challenging times it is better to push through by tapping into the mindset of Yirat Hashem. In such circumstances, in which difficulties may present challenges to our faith, we need to reinforce our knowledge that Hashem is the Judge, and that there is justice in this world- regardless of how it appears to our limited vision We must remind ourselves that Hashem is guiding and overseeing every event and occurrence, and that everything is truly for the best. In this way, we are employing our fear and awareness of Hashem and His justice. During times of tranquility and light, we can put more stress on Ahavat Hashem; when our hearts are more open to loving Hashem, we use the opportunity to grow more attached to Him.
This concept helps to explain a cryptic Kabbalistic teaching regarding our verse:
‘A Pillar of Cloud’: This refers to Avraham Avinu.
‘A Pillar of Fire’: This refers to Yitzchak Avinu.
How do Avraham and Yitzhak relate to the Pillars? We can now understand.
As Hashem took the young nation on the beginning of its journey, before the Egyptians ‘caught’ B’nei Israel at the Sea and the miraculous rescue that followed, Hashem gave them a message: there are days of light and days of darkness. In times of light, we must strive to serve Hashem with love. With no confusion holding us back, our thoughts and deeds must reflect the opportunity we are given. Moreover, when we can clearly see the good we are given, our love for Hashem should grow and thus inspire us to greater spiritual heights.
Avraham Avinu, as we have discussed in the past, excelled in this area. As such, the Pillar of Cloud symbolizes Avraham and the way he related to God; in the light of day, our love of Hashem gives us direction in serving Him. (Additionally, the Clouds of Glory were given to the Jews in the merit of Aharon, who was the ‘pursuer of peace’ [see Pirkei Avot, 1:12]; again, ‘Clouds’ allude to love.)
Thus, this is hinted at in the verse:
…by day, with a Pillar of Cloud to show them the way…
– ‘The way’ means that love of Hashem is the ultimate way to serve Him.
At night, however, a different approach is called for. The inner strength required for our belief in Hashem’s perfect fairness and control was the trait expressed by Yitzchak, who excelled in his Fear of Hashem.*** So although at night we may need a “Pillar of Fire” to help us, the key is that we continue to follow Hashem regardless. In fact, the word here hints to this aspect of serving God:
…and by night, with a Pillar of Fire to give light (“le’ha’ir) for them…
-as the word for ‘to give light’ contains the letters which form
“le’yirah” -meaning, ‘to fear (Hashem)’.
This also sheds new light on B’nei Israel’s introduction to the Mann, the miraculous food with which Hashem sustained the nation in the desert:
Moshe and Aharon said to all B’nei Israel, “In the evening you will know that Hashem took you out of the Land of Egypt. In the morning you will see the Honor of Hashem…”
-Beshalah, 16:6, 16:7 (abridged)
Based on the above, a new reading emerges: in the “evening,” in challenging times, focus on how Hashem took us out of Egypt- displaying His control and justice. In the “morning,” in easier times, connect to Hashem’s Honor, achieved through dwelling on Creation and His endless kindness towards us (See Shema Series).
This in turn reminds us of a well-known explanation of a verse in Tehilim:
To recount Your kindness in the morning, and Your faith at nights…
-Tehilim, 92:3- By “day,” with a clear view of all the good, we relate Hashem’s kindness to us (and can utilize this awareness to further our growth). At “night,” though, we cling to our faith, reminding ourselves that it is still all good.
*Hashem used the Pillar of Cloud to lead the way for the nation as they travelled in the desert; it went in front of the moving camp, and the tribes followed it until they arrived at their next stop. The Pillar of Fire would provide light at night (even allowing for travel then). More importantly, they served together as constant reminders of Hashem’s love for, and His protection of, His nation. The two would alternate seamlessly, so that there was never a moment in which one was not there.
**Ramban actually teaches this dichotomy in order to explain a Torah principle: “A positive commandment pushes off (has priority over) a negative commandment.” While the application of this rule is beyond the scope of our subject, suffice it to say, for our discussion, that Ramban sees the positive commandment as superior to the negative one because loving Hashem is a higher form of serving Him. Still, both are completely necessary and required in order to keep the Torah.
***While our forefathers exemplified these traits- and each served Hashem through one particular ‘prism,’ we need to remember that they all excelled in all areas of serving Hashem- on levels that are beyond our imagination.
Have a great Shabbat!
Elli Schwarcz is an alumnus of the Toras Moshe, Ner Israel, and Carteret Yeshivos, and has been involved in Jewish outreach for almost 15 years. He is a Hebrew School and English Language Arts teacher, and has a Master’s Degree in Counseling from Johns Hopkins University. Of all his pursuits, Elli most enjoys teaching high-level Jewish thought and Talmud to teenage boys, exposing them to the beauty and wisdom of their heritage while highlighting their own ability to engage in advanced Torah learning. Elli lives in Lakewood, New Jersey, with his wife and children.