Dvar Torah: Encountering the cloud and fire in the everyday

Written by Rabbi Josh Levy — 10 June 2022

Last Sunday morning, for those who missed it in the excitement of the Jubilee weekend, was also Shavuot.  We read together the dramatic narrative of the giving of the Ten Commandments.  From Exodus 19, I read the following description of the build up to revelation: ‘v’anan kaveid al ha’har’ – ‘cloud grew heavy on the mountain’… ‘yarad alav Adonai ba’eish’ – ‘The Eternal had come down upon it in fire’.


Tomorrow morning, Noa will read for us from Numbers that from the day the tabernacle was set up in the wilderness,

כן יהיה תמיד הענן יכסנו ומראה־אש לילה

‘kein yihyeh tamid – he-anan y’cha’sennu u’mar’eh eish laila’ – ‘It was always so – the cloud covered it [the mishkan], appearing as fire by night.’


An obscure midrash on tomorrow’s portion states –
אותו הענן שנגלה עליו על הר סיני
‘otto he-annan she-niglah alav al har sinai’.
‘This is the very cloud that appeared upon Mount Sinai.’

That is, the cloud Noa will read about tomorrow morning, covering the mishkan, is the exact same cloud that I read about last week on Mount Sinai. The cloud and fire of Sinai was the same cloud and fire that accompanied the Israelites on their journey.


There is something extraordinarily powerful about this idea.

There used to be an argument in the world of synagogues, that the way to create meaningful Jewish life was through what were called ‘mountain top moments’. Create big, transformative events, and people would be able to grasp the beauty and majesty of what we do. These would be the moments that people would finally be able to see the cloud and the fire, to access the divine.


There is some truth there.
But mountain top moments are not enough.

One of the things I’ve learned over the many years of doing this work is that the very same cloud has to be there in the everyday. If we want to encounter it, it is there that we should really look.


The way to really build a meaningful Jewish life is not to hope for a moment of revelation to knock you over. Jewish life does not happen to you, but through you – it is what we build through our efforts. And for that to be the case we need to engage – day by day, week after week – to walk every day with the cloud and the fire.

It isn’t enough to ‘rock up’ once in a while, expecting to be granted a moment of revelation, as if standing at the foot of the mountain will be sufficient.

And importantly, nor do we need to have those moments to be moved or inspired – the same cloud and fire is there all the time if we work to access it.


I have the privilege of working with an extraordinary group of people here. And this is one of the core values that we share, that we bring to this place – a belief that the everyday matters. The Shabbat morning sermon requires as much thought as that for Yom Kippur; A study session for 10 on a wet Thursday afternoon should be as well prepared as one for Shavuot; every service needs to be crafted and thought about and intentional, and in tune. Because in these moments we have the possibility of encountering the fire of Sinai.

And, if the cloud and fire are here with us everyday, what a disgrace it would be if we didn’t put in this effort – if we didn’t work hard enough, care enough, to try to see it.


אותו הענן שנגלה עליו על הר סיני
According to midrash, the very same cloud accompanied both the moment of revelation with all its extraordinary drama – the thunder and the lighting, God’s voice booming, the mountain shaking – and the more mundane travels of the Israelites in the wilderness.

God was there in the same way in the biggest moment and in the ordinary walking of life.


כן יהיה תמיד הענן יכסנו ומראה־אש לילה

As Noa will read tomorrow, ‘it was always so – the cloud covered it, appearing as fire by night’.

The cloud and the fire of revelation can always be there for us too, if only we work to encounter it.