Earlier this week, a friend asked me a question about this week’s Torah portion, Beha’alotecha. When the Jews were traveling in the desert, they were led by a cloud during the day, and a fire at night. My friend inquired why the Torah repeatedly mentions that when the cloud was present, they would camp, and when it lifted, they would travel.
From verses 15-23 in chapter 9, the Torah details the signals to journey: When G-d decided that it was time to travel, the cloud would depart from its hovering place above the Tent of Meeting, and when the cloud would return it was His sign that they should camp.
The verses continue to describe how sometimes the cloud would hover above the Tent of Meeting for different periods of time, and that the Jews would only travel or camp based on the cloud.
My friend asked, What is the point of all this? The Torah could have conveyed the same point in one sentence. Additionally, it is not describing particular journeys and the verses therefore seem to be extraneous.
I didn’t know the answer, but my curiosity was piqued. I selected a few books of classical commentaries from my shelf, and the first one I opened yielded an answer (afterwards, I found a very similar answer in Ramban, Sforno and Ohr HaChaim).
Rabbeinu Bechaye explains that the verses are coming to offer praise of the Jewish people. What is the praise?
Some places that we camped in the desert were beautiful oases, while others were parched and dry. Regardless of how pleasurable a particular location was, we only remained there for as long as G-d indicated via the cloud.
Whether we liked our location at the moment didn’t really matter; if G-d signaled via the cloud that it was time to travel, then we picked up and traveled. If, on the other hand, we found ourselves somewhere that was less-than-pleasurable, we would not leave until the cloud departed.
The Jews in the desert recognized that wherever we may be has been guided by the Almighty, and is for a higher purpose.
I am reminded of something I heard from Rabbi Jonathan Sacks in late 2011.
Rabbi Sacks recounted how in 1968, he met the Rebbe for the first time. After discussing philosophical issues, the Rebbe began asking him about his own activities in Cambridge. “How many Jewish students were there? How many get involved in Jewish life? What are you doing to bring other people in?”
Rabbi Sacks began his response with, “In the situation in which I find myself…” — but the Rebbe stopped him mid-sentence and said, “Nobody finds themselves in a situation; you put yourself in a situation. And if you put yourself in that situation, you can put yourself in another situation.”
Since the time we traversed the desert, we have “found ourselves” in many different situations and locales. Our challenge has always been to lift ourselves above the mundane, connecting to the Higher purpose within every place.