D’var Torah: June 24, 2016

Dear Friends,

Rarely do I find a biblical commentary with which I thoroughly disagree, but in this week’s portion such is the case. The commentary is found in the Conservative Movement Humash, called Etz Hayim, or tree of life. Generally, this is a fine Torah commentary, and I enjoy turning to it. I have found in it many wonderful teachings, and so I was surprised this week when I discovered the following.

Etz Hayim (Parashat Beha’alotcha, Numbers 8:1-12:16) is addressing the cloud of God which hovered over the Tabernacle in the desert (Num. 9:15). When the cloud would ascend and move, it signaled our ancestors to pack up their belongings, and journey, as well. They followed the cloud and were guided in their peripatetic, desert ways. I have always found the image of the cloud to be benign and comforting. As one who once lived in the Southern California desert, I know well that a cloud can provide welcome shade against a scorching sun. Surely, it was for our ancestors: they had minimal shade, and could only anoint themselves with oils to guard their skin against the ravages of the sun and sand. The cloud not only sheltered them, but offered a symbolic, tangible essence of God’s protecting presence. As such, I have always found a “warm fuzzy” in the image of the cloud abiding above the tabernacle, in constant view of the Israelites.

Hence, I was surprised to read the following in Etz Hayim, addressing our Torah verse: “The function of religion is often to intrude a cloud on our bright days, reminding us of suffering in the world (as breaking a glass at a wedding recalls the destruction of the Temple), and to send light into our darkest nights, keeping us from despair.” [Etz Hayim, The Rabbinical Assembly, 2001, p. 821, (parentheses in original)].

The function of religion is often to intrude a cloud on our bright days… As a rabbi, I question such a statement. Rarely has my task been to dull the luster. Rather, I am regularly buttressing those who are mired in the shadows of despondency. Rarely do we find persons giddy in delusion who need comeuppance from the religious station.

True, there is the famous Midrash which teaches that when God created humanity, God placed two notes in our pockets, one that read, “You are but dust and ashes,” while the second declared, “You are the crown of creation.” Thus, when one is haughty and arrogant, one could read the first note and be properly tempered, and contrarily, when one is sober and sullen, one could extract the second note and be bolstered and empowered.

There is a significant difference between upbraiding the arrogant and dampening one’s joy or glee on a bright day. Religion – and Judaism – must support the happiness of the good day, not tarnish it. The cloud should reinforce confidence, not threaten it. Life is hard enough without second-guessing gladness or achievement. I believe that Judaism, and our wonderful cloud, do just that: bring us richness, confidence and reinforced brightness.

May such be our Judaism! Shabbat Shalom!

Rabbi Douglas Kohn