In her Torah portion for Beshalach, Rabbi Sigal Asher considers the Pillar of Cloud and the Pillar of Fire that famously showed the Israelites their way as they traveled to the Promised Land. Although we are now in the land of Israel, our society is plagued with threats and abuses, all throwing us off our intended path. Rabbi Asher tells us that we, as a society and as individuals, must reclaim our pillar of smoke and pillar of fire in order to live in a just, equitable and healthy state.
“And the Lord went before them by day in a pillar of cloud, to lead them the way; and by night in a pillar of fire, to give them light; that they might go by day and by night: the pillar of cloud by day, and the pillar of fire by night, departed not from before the people” (Exodus 13:21-22).
By: Rabbi Sigal Asher
Beshalach tells of the sequence of events after Pharaoh agreed to the Israelites’ leaving the land of Egypt. It includes the parting of the Red Sea and the song on crossing the sea, solutions to the people’s shortage of food and water, and the first war against Amalek. A few verses into the portion appear the pillar of cloud and the pillar of fire that accompanied the people: the pillar of cloud showed them the way by day and the pillar of fire lit their way by night. Later on in the portion we learn how the pillar of cloud protected the children of Israel when the Egyptians pursued them, by standing between the Egyptian camp and the Israelite camp and separating them. Later on, after the tabernacle was built, it was covered by the cloud and signaled to the people when they should continue their journey. The pillar of cloud by day and pillar of fire by night were before the eyes of the Israelites the whole time and had a very significant role.
The Israeli television series “Pillar of Fire,” broadcast in the 1980s, reviewed the development of Zionism during the “wandering through the desert” until Israel was founded. But we would be mistaken to think that the pillar of cloud and pillar of fire ended their roles once Israel was established. They are vital to our lives as individuals and a society, not only when we are in the desert but also when we reside in the State of Israel. What are the pillar of cloud and pillar of fire that show us the way as a society? What should lead us as a society and a state?
“We need a pillar of fire and pillar of cloud to show us the way, be a constant reminder of the way we wish to go and alert us every time we take a wrong turn.”
If we look around us we see human rights being trampled; homeless people; children, women and men living under the shadow of violence; people working under unfair conditions and failing to support themselves from their work; a growing number of people living in poverty; women forcibly trafficked for prostitution; elderly people who cannot age in dignity; people with special needs who are not receiving adequate care; people who are unable to exercise their right to create a family; rape victims blamed for their rapes; whistleblowers punished for their revelations; citizens of Israel who do not have equal rights; asylum-seekers persecuted without checking their status; a state of war going on for decades; all that and more is happening right under our noses but it is easy for us not to see it. The number of “transparent,” invisible people, is growing. So long as we are not among them we prefer not to see, not to know. Better to sweep it under the carpet as if it weren’t happening here.
What happened to our empathy, our ability to look around and want to change things? What happened to our mutual commitment, the knowledge that if my neighbor is not happy, I am not happy either? Where is our moral beacon?
Without a pillar of cloud and pillar of fire to guide our way, both as individuals and a state, we are lost. There are people who have turned themselves into pillars of fire in tragic circumstances in order for their cries to be heard, to remind us to go back and look for our pillar of cloud and pillar of fire as a society, and remind the state of its role and its obligation towards the people.
In his book “Blindness,” author José Saramago describes a society where people are gradually being struck blind until everyone is blind except one woman, the doctor’s wife. Symbolically and ironically, when a person in that town becomes blind, they see everything in white, as if blindness were comfortable, soft, and pleasant. Later it turns out that the white darkness is an illusion. In the chaos created after the blindness all laws are broken, each person to himself, and a violent gang takes over the city. Thus, people who fell blind because they did not want to see what was happening around them, fall victim to the very things that they did not want to see. Salvation comes after the doctor’s wife, whose eyes remain open and seeing, leads a group of blind people. This group confronts the situation as a group rather than individuals, with its members helping and supporting each other. Through compassion, fraternity and mutual solidarity the blind gain their eyesight back.
Only if we look around us – and to really look we do not need eyes, only hearts – we can make our lives better and live as a healthier society. We need a pillar of fire and pillar of cloud to show us the way, be a constant reminder of the way we wish to go and alert us every time we take a wrong turn.
May we succeed walking, as individuals and a society, in the light of the pillar of fire and pillar of cloud. May they show us the way to rectify injustice and prevent obfuscation and the closing of our eyes, for a healthy and equitable society. Blessed is he who infuses our hearts with the strength to change and repair.