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Shabbat Parashat Yitro 5781

Parashat Hashavua: What Does the Thickness of the Cloud Mean?

Harav Yosef Carmel

According to the midrash, special clouds accompanied our ancestors already from the time of Avraham and Sarah. In the Exodus from Egypt, the accompaniment of the cloud takes on national significance, and in our parasha, the matter is specifically stressed.

The one-time event of the giving of the Torah was designed to take place in the “av he’anan (thickness of the cloud). Hashem will “appear” to Bnei Yisrael in the thickness of the cloud so that they will hear when Hashem speaks to Moshe (Shemot 19:9). Rashi (ad loc.) identifies this av he’anan as arafel (fog), as the Torah refers to it as the place where Moshe went to join Hashem (ibid. 20:18).  

There are parallel p’sukim using similar descriptions to those of the events at Sinai to describe David’s view of the Hand of Hashem in his famous song (Tehillim 18:10-14). It describes Hashem descending from/with the Heavens along with an arafel. There is darkness around Him, along with clouds, and yet there are bursts of fire and thunderous sounds. This is how Hashem “appears” when fighting the battles of one who is close to Him. In this context, what is the meaning of fog and clouds?

Targum Yonatan refers to arafel as a cloud that darkens, along the lines that he explains the “alata” of the setting sun that brought great darkness that set the stage for the Brit Bein Habetarim. Ralbag explained this as a show of the Divine Presence which, so to speak, joined David in the physical world. Because this physical world is one of darkness, that is the way Hashem’s appearance within it is described. The Radak says that the darkness does not refer to the appearance of Hashem but to the state of the enemies of David, from whom Hashem came to protect him. So, in summary, the fog either is there to “hide” the Divine Presence, express the nature of the physical world, or cause darkness to the enemies.

We can extrapolate from there to the role of the clouds/fog at the giving of the Torah. According to Targum Yonatan, the clouds hid the Divine Presence. According to the Ralbag, Bnei Yisrael who received the Torah, did so as human beings in the human, physical world. The big miracle is that within such a world, it is possible for a nation of humans to serve as a “kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Shemot 19:6). According to the Radak, even if the enemies of David experienced darkness, representing difficult times, the revelation at Sinai was able to provide light even though there was darkness around.

After Tu B’Shevat, when we celebrated the produce of the Land, which is the clearest sign of the emerging of the Era of Mashiach (see Sanhedrin 98a), we start thinking about Purim, which is like a mini-giving of the Torah. “For the Jews there was light” (Esther 8:16) – this is Torah, which was revealed through the hidden Hand of Hashem. As Yeshayahu said (60:2): “For the darkness will cover the land, and the fog will cover nations, but on you will Hashem shine His light, and His glory will be seen upon you.”

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