Note: The English version of the name of the Israel Army’s operation in Gaza was "Pillar of Defense," but this piece, originally composed in Hebrew, reflects its official Hebrew designation, based on the Biblical phrase "amud ‘anan."
This was not a simple week here in Israel. We had loved ones serving in reserve duty, we lived in the shadow of palpable terror, we repeatedly ran into shelters and we had to explain to ourselves and to our children about the essence of war. I wanted to share some thoughts I had over the course of this difficult week.
The need to explain the reason for a war is not new. A midrash that appears in various classic rabbinic sources tries to explain the literary sequence of Bemidbar 20-21, where the death of Aharon and the war with the Canaanite King of Arad are juxtaposed. The Midrash suggests that this juxtaposition is intended to give the reason for this war:
The Pillar of Cloud was there on account of Aharon….when Aharon died, the clouds of glory disappeared. This explains the phrase: ‘The Canaanite King of Arad heard.’ What did he hear? He heard that Aharon had died and that the clouds of glory had disappeared. He calculated that he had been given permission to wage war on Israel. (Ta’anit 9b; see Sifrei Bemidbar #82 for another version)
The disappearance of the Pillar of Cloud was thus erroneously interpreted as an opportunity for war. The King of Arad’s calculus reveals that the Pillar’s presence was taken as a sign that war was forbidden. Against this backdrop, it is worth asking: what were the nature and characteristics of the Pillar of Cloud in the desert?
In the Torah, the Pillar of Cloud is a sign and expression of God’s presence, both when the Israelites are traveling – “And God led the way during the day with a Pillar of Cloud” (Shemot 13:21) – as well as when they are stationary – “And God appeared in the tent in a Pillar of Cloud.” (Devarim 31:15) This Divine presence is constant, “it does not depart.” (Shemot 13:22) Another characteristic of the Pillar of Cloud is its function “to show them the way” (Shemot 13:21) – it delineates the Israelites’ journey in the desert.
The Pillar of Cloud, even as it serves as the focus and symbol of Divine presence, is also the barrier between God and human beings. It descends upon the Tabernacle and sits precisely at its entrance. (Devarim 31:15) God descends “in a Pillar of Cloud” (Bemidbar 12:5) and the people see the Pillar and not the Holy and Blessed One (Shemot 33:10). In the battle against the Egyptians, “God looked out on the Egyptian camp through a pillar of fire and cloud.” But not directly. This role of the Cloud as a separation between God and human beings also functions as a separation between humans, when the Egyptians are chasing the Israelites as they leave Egypt and head towards the Red Sea: “The Pillar of Cloud moved from their front guard to their rear” – almost like an Iron Dome.
These two characteristics of the Pillar of Cloud – that of a guide and that of a barrier – intermingle in the midrashic image that broadens the Cloud to contain seven pillars. The Pillar that marched before the Israelite camp was tasked with “killing snakes and scorpions, burning up thorns, thistles and underbrush, flattening the high places and straightening valleys, thereby making the way straight for them.” (Tosefta Sotah 4:2) The midrash concludes by singling out the basic characteristic of the Pillar of Cloud: “They relied on it all 40 years that they were in the desert.” The Pillar of Cloud is an entity of the transitional desert period, the period during which the Israelites could not on their own kill snakes and scorpions, when they were unable to make their own straight path nor take basic responsibility for their own well-being, due to their impoverished physical or spiritual state.
The Pillar of Cloud is thus a sign of permanent Divine presence, a protective and guiding presence. However, the Cloud also symbolizes division, a barrier that stretches between the Holy and Blessed One and the people. It is a symbol of the desert connection between God and human beings: A strong, constant connection, but indirect – through a cloud. It is a connection of unidirectional dependence, a symbol of a time when Israel is unable to take responsibility for itself.
Despite the code name given to this latest Israeli military operation – “Pillar of Cloud” – the Biblical and midrashic Pillar is not an appropriate metaphor for last week’s events, which played out between Gaza, Beersheva, Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. I worry that this terminological muddle reflects an existential muddle as well. The Cloud’s presence is understood to forbid war and the protection it symbolizes is defensive. But we have left the desert and our current reality is one of sovereignty. As leaders and citizens, it is our duty to understand our own power and the responsibility that flows from it.
While the desert-era dependence was characterized by our full protection by God, now the responsibility rests on our shoulders to decide about the right ways to defend ourselves. The Israeli army invests a great deal in asking these types of questions: What are the practical and moral implications of various military operations? What criteria should determine how and when to go into such a military operation altogether? But more important than any of those: what is our long-term vision for how we live in this land as a sovereign people?
It is not my job – certainly not in this short piece – to try to answer those questions with specifics. Israelis and Jews around the world will disagree on those matters; ideally these disputes – as long as they are le-shem shamayim, for a heavenly purpose – will broaden our understanding of what is possible and help shape a future in which we are all safe and sound. But as sovereign Jews with power, we must be full participants in delineating our own path forward; we can no longer just be led in a defensive and responsive posture. We must, creatively and bravely, engage in imagining a better reality regarding life with our neighbors and how we proactively move toward it – jointly when possible. We should not yearn for the desert era and its paradigmatic symbol – the Pillar of Cloud. No Pillar of Cloud or Iron Dome can shield us from the responsibility we have to envision what our future looks like in this land. We must go forth with eyes wide open and live to its fullest the golden opportunity that leaving the desert demands of us – here in the sovereign State of Israel.