“And G-d went before them by day (yomam) in a pillar of cloud, to lead them along the way (haderech), and by night (layla) in a pillar of fire, to give them light, to go by day and by night: the pillar of cloud by day, and the pillar of fire by night, did not depart (lo yamish) from before the people.” (Shemot 13:21-22)
After miraculously crushing the Egyptians’ will through ten plagues, G-d took the Jewish people out of Egypt to be His own, His first born, His chosen people. G-d expressed his love and commitment to His people by “personally” acting as their guide through the desert, sending two manifestations of His presence, the cloud and the fire, to walk in front of the camp. The Yerushalmi (Shabbat 7:2) highlights the power of this experience. The Talmud notes that on Shabbat, one is only liable for violating the melachah of boneh, building, if one builds a permanent structure. However, as the Talmud records in several places, the categories of prohibited activities on Shabbat are derived from those actions performed in the building of the miskhan, the Tabernacle. In the case of the mishkan, however, the building was temporary – the mishkan was deconstructed and reconstructed each time the Jews travelled! Doesn’t this prove that even building a temporary structure should be forbidden on Shabbat? In response, the Yerushalmi notes that “since they travelled according to the word [of G-d], it was as if it was forever.” What this seems to mean is that building is considered temporary only when one’s mindset dwells on transience. However, the Jews did not view the encampments as temporary – even when travelling they experienced permanence. Wherever they were, no matter for how long or short, they were just doing as G-d said. They were guided by the will of the Eternal one, so for all they cared, wherever G-d told them to be, they could be forever. (See, however, the second position there.)
Did this experience evaporate when the Jews finally left the desert forty years later, when they entered the Land of Israel? Do we no longer have G-d guiding us in our day to day lives? It seems that G-d continues to direct us, even if it is no longer through clouds and fire. As the Jews were about to enter the Land, G-d said “This book of the Torah shall not depart (lo yamush) from your mouth, and you shall meditate on it day and night, so that you may observe all that is written in it; for then your way (derachecha) will be prosperous and succeed.” (Yehoshua 1:8) Here, as in the case of the fire and cloud, we have something from G-d which is does not depart (lo yamish/yamush), day or night (yomam, layla). In the former case, G-d used these tools to guide them on the path (haderech), and in the latter, following the Torah will make their way (derech) successful. Furthermore, the Jews leader in this new era was Yehoshua, who is identified as he who did not depart from (lo yamish) from the tent of Moshe – he who was fully committed to imbibing the lessons G-d had given Moshe face-to-face (Shemot 33:11). To complete the connection, the Torah itself is referred to as fire (Yirmiyahu 23:29, Berachot 22b). Torah became G-d’s way of guiding us for the rest of history.
Rabbenu Bechaye (Shemot 13:21) cites a midrash that hints at this connection: “To go by day and by night” – they were going to receive the Torah about which it says “and you shall meditate on it day and night.” G-d was temporarily guided them with the cloud and fire so he could give them the Torah, the permanent guide of the Jewish people, that ensures that no matter what we do, we have the word of G-d enlightening and directing our path. And, as in the case of the cloud and fire, our adherence to that path gives our lives permanence. Whether we are going through good or difficult periods in our life, through period of constant change and uncertainty or periods of stability, if we are committed to G-d and his Torah, G-d’s presence and guidance ensure that there is always some constancy in our lives. Whatever we are going through, we can point to our relationship with the Eternal One as the omnipresent theme in our lives.