We are called The People of the Book. Appropriately so, because all of Jewish life and practice is built on text. Torah, of course, is the foundation of the law, which is further developed by the Mishna, the Talmud, and centuries of continued writings and teachings. Just last week we read or heard the Megillah of Esther, and in less than a month we will read and hear the words of the Hagaddah.
And then there are the siddur and the machzor — the prayer book used throughout the year and the special prayer book for the High Holy Days. Although the different streams of Judaism have published their own prayer books, all of them are based on Hebrew texts that are centuries, even millennia, old.
Judaism is based on so many words!
The underlying intention of all these texts and all these words is to help us experience the Divine. So what do we make of the final verse of the Book of Exodus, which we read this week?
“For the cloud of YHVH would be on the Tabernacle by day, and fire would be on it at night, before the eyes of all the House of Israel throughout their journeys.” (Exodus 40:38)
The cloud and the fire have a stated purpose in the Torah: they signal when it is time for the Israelites to decamp and continue their journey, and they also indicate God’s presence in the Israelites’ midst.
I’d like to propose an additional way to consider the cloud and the fire: as a visual reminder that the Divine can be profoundly experienced beyond words, through silence.
Words are so often inadequate for expressing deep emotion or feeling. Perhaps you have found yourself responding to someone nonverbally, with a loving look, a warm touch, or tears of empathy. For example, Judaism teaches us not to speak to mourners until they have spoken first, which helps prevent us from blurting out platitudes or unwelcomed words.
In addition to being inadequate for expressing deep emotion, words can block the channel between ourselves and the holiness all around us. Consider the difference between taking a hike with a companion and taking a hike by oneself. How much more we can notice, how much more focused and yet open are our thoughts, when we are silent and alone in nature .
But we humans are easily preoccupied with the ordinary events and distractions of daily life. We need reminders of God’s presence. Something inside — some call it “soul” — yearns to connect with the Still Small Voice that cannot be heard within a tumult of words. The Israelites had that reminder. The cloud by day and the fire at night were visible, non-verbal reminders that the Divine presence was constantly with them.
May we find our own non-verbal reminders to refrain from words so that we can arrive at a deeper place of connection with other people, with ourselves, and with the Holy One of Blessing.