Shemot 40:35 states that Moshe Rabbeinu was not able to enter the Ohel Mo’ed for the cloud was upon it and the kvod Hashem, the glory of God, filled the Mishkan.1 Rashi poses a powerful question: in Bamidbar 7:89, it speaks of Moshe entering the Mishkan to converse with God yet this verse in Shemot states that Moshe could not even enter the Mishkan because it was filled with His glory? This, Rashi concludes, is specifically why the verse states that God’s glory filled the Mishkan when the cloud was upon the Ohel Mo’ed. Only then, when the cloud was upon the Ohel Mo’ed, was Moshe unable to enter; when the cloud departed, Moshe was able to enter and speak with God as per the verse in Bamidbar. This yields a strange paradox. When the cloud was upon the Ohel, Moshe could not speak with God yet when the cloud was not upon the Ohel, Moshe was able to converse with Him. This would seem to imply that even when the cloud was not upon the Ohel, God’s presence still was present. After all, that is when He spoke to Moshe. What then was the message of this cloud being upon the Ohel Mo’ed? God’s presence was there with or without the cloud.
The essence of this question is actually posed differently in variant sources. T.B, Yoma 4b wonders why the presence of the cloud would be an impediment to Moshe’s entry for we are told, in Shemot 24:18, that Moshe entered the cloud at Har Sinai. The gemara concludes that God assisted Moshe in entering the cloud at Sinai, therefore he was able to enter it. Ramban, Shemot 40:34 extends this idea to the Ohel Mo’ed. Moshe could not enter the Ohel on his own accord when the cloud was upon it but, when summoned by Hashem, he entered it with permission. The words of Ramban actually seem to imply that the issue is not ability but permission and propriety. When the cloud was upon the Ohel, Moshe felt that it was inappropriate for him to enter without permission; but with permission, and especially if demanded by God, he would enter.
Support for this contention of the Ramban can be found in a pronouncement of the Medrash Hagadol quoted in Torah Shelaima, Shemot 40:35, note 74. The medrash specifically states that, from the experience on Har Sinai, it was clear that Moshe Rabbeinu could walk within the cloud. The statement that Moshe was unable to enter actually is informing us that Moshe chose not to walk into where the cloud was as Moshe wished to show honour to God, choosing to enter the Ohel only after called to enter by God. For this Moshe was, in turn, honoured by God. This understanding may also explain the apparent paradox in the viewpoint of Rashi. Indeed God’s presence continuously filled the Mishkan. When the cloud was upon the Ohel, though, God did not call to Moshe to enter and so he did not. It was only at times that the cloud was not upon the Ohel that Hashem would call to Moshe and so he would enter. It was not the cloud that barred Moshe’s entry. Somehow, though, the presence of the cloud did nonetheless preclude Moshe from entering the Ohel. Moshe would not enter without first being summoned and the presence of the cloud seemed to be somehow connected with Moshe not being summoned by God.
Malbim, Shemot 40:34, in addressing this very issue, seems to develop an understanding of the cloud that appears to be at odds with our first perceptions. The simple reading of the verse implies that it was the cloud that represented the glory of God and, in whose presence, Moshe was barred from entering. Malbim contends that the cloud’s purpose was actually to cover His glory; through the cloud, God’s glory was to be somewhat hidden. It was when the cloud was removed that the full glory would radiate, which was indicated by the fire. The cloud, thus, was not the representation of His glory nor was it that which barred Moshe from entering. Moshe was, simply, not summoned by God to enter when the cloud filled the Mishkan for it was, rather, a time when God’s glory was, actually, to be hidden. It was specifically when the cloud was removed and God’s glory would be more revealed that God would wish to communicate with Moshe and would call upon Moshe to enter.2 The verse, though, still does state specifically that Moshe could not enter because of the cloud. It may be that the verse is actually informing us that Moshe understood that it was not respectful for him to enter when the cloud was upon the Ohel for God’s glory was covered at this time.
Something of a paradox still remains. When it is easier to approach God because the fullness of His glory is somewhat covered, it may also be a time when it is actually disrespectful to approach Him. When it is a time, though, when the glory of God is more apparent and God may actually be calling to us, it may be more difficult to be in His presence. When it is easier, it may be inappropriate; when it is appropriate, it may be most difficult. This is, in fact, the challenge in relating to God. If we fully understood the very idea of what it means to relate to God, we would be overtaken by the awesome challenge that it represents. When we can fathom a connection to Him, there is a great possibility that we will be disrespectful in any approach to Him. When we have a proper perception of Him, the perception that we can even approach him seems beyond us.3 The only answer may be in precisely what the Torah presents: the teaching of the dialectic.
The cloud must at times hide the glory of God yet at times it must not. Only the kohanim may do the service in the Temple yet we must all also recognize that we are equal before God. Sacrifices are integral to the process of atonement yet, as Mishna Yoma 8:9 states, it is ultimately God Who offers atonement. Any one idea or perception, even if most noble, can weaken our understanding of Torah and of God if it exists solely in a vacuum. If we see God as totally accessible, the possibility of inappropriate familiarity is very real. We must accept the reality of a barrier between Him and us. We must accept the necessity of a cloud that covers His glory so His awesomeness is never ignored. Only within that context can we pray for Him to fully reveal Himself to us and draw us towards Him to stand in His presence as He did with Moshe.
1 The exact distinction between the Mishkan and the Ohel Mo’ed, both in actuality and in the specific usage of each term, is a matter discussed by the commentators but beyond the scope of this Insight. For an example, see Haemek Davar, Shemot 40:34.
2 It was then, also, that Moshe needed the assistance from God to stand in His presence.
3 See, further, Ramban, Comments to the Rambam’s Sefer HaMitzvot, Aseh 5 where he states that the verses that seem to imply a command to pray actually are presenting a permission to pray. How can we otherwise assume that we can approach the Creator of all, the King of Kings, with our petty requests?
Rabbi Benjamin Hecht is the Founding Director of Nishma, an international Torah research, resource and educational endeavor devoted to the fostering of individual inquiry, the presentation of the halachic spectrum and the critical investigation of contemporary issues. For further info, see www.nishma.org <http://www.nishma.org/> .
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