The Original GPS System

Summertime is approaching and many have begun planning their summer road trips and vacations. Does anyone remember a Trip-Tik? How about the maps from AAA? Nowadays the only preparation necessary is a phone and the Waze or Google Maps app to lead the way.

When our ancestors traversed through the desert for 40 years towards the land of Israel, there were no modern maps or apps available, rather G-d advanced the original GPS system called the Ananei HaKavod – The Clouds of Glory.

In our Parsha this week, Behaalotecha, we read of the travel rituals of the Israelites in the desert.


Numbers 9:15-17

וּבְיוֹם֙ הָקִ֣ים אֶת־הַמִּשְׁכָּ֔ן כִּסָּ֤ה הֶֽעָנָן֙ אֶת־הַמִּשְׁכָּ֔ן לְאֹ֖הֶל הָעֵדֻ֑ת וּבָעֶ֜רֶב יִהְיֶ֧ה עַֽל־הַמִּשְׁכָּ֛ן כְּמַרְאֵה־אֵ֖שׁ עַד־בֹּֽקֶר׃ כֵּ֚ן יִהְיֶ֣ה תָמִ֔יד הֶעָנָ֖ן יְכַסֶּ֑נּוּ וּמַרְאֵה־אֵ֖שׁ לָֽיְלָה׃ וּלְפִ֞י הֵעָל֤וֹת הֶֽעָנָן֙ מֵעַ֣ל הָאֹ֔הֶל וְאַ֣חֲרֵי כֵ֔ן יִסְע֖וּ בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל וּבִמְק֗וֹם אֲשֶׁ֤ר יִשְׁכׇּן־שָׁם֙ הֶֽעָנָ֔ן שָׁ֥ם יַחֲנ֖וּ בְּנֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵֽל׃ 

On the day that the Tabernacle was set up, the cloud covered the Tabernacle, the Tent of the Pact; and in the evening it rested over the Tabernacle in the likeness of fire until morning. It was always so: the cloud covered it, appearing as fire by night. And whenever the cloud lifted from the Tent, the Israelites would set out accordingly; and at the spot where the cloud settled, there the Israelites would make camp.

Pretty amazing – with the desert wide open in front of them and no street signs, billboards, or even a compass, G-d leads the nation of Israel with a miraculous GPS system comprised of clouds.

What do we know about these clouds? How did we merit their existence? What are they meant to symbolize and teach us? 

Throughout the Talmud there are teachings about these Clouds of Glory. Here are a few:

  • Since they are mentioned seven times in the Torah, this indicates that there were seven actual Clouds of Glory, four surrounding them, one on top, one cushioning them underneath, and one out in front of them to smoothen the path ahead.
  • During the daytime the Clouds appeared like clouds, but at night they were lit up like a fire. 
  • We merited the miracle of the Clouds of Glory due to the kindness of Aharon, the High Priest. Aharon embodied peace and tranquility and spent his days bringing peace between people. In a sense, he provided them with love and direction. So too, the Clouds of Glory provided the Israelites divine love and direction in their travels. When Aharon dies at the end of 40 years, the Clouds of Glory dissipate  and no longer lead the way.
  • These Clouds of Glory are the miracle we celebrate on the holiday of Sukkot. According to Rabbi Eliezer, on Sukkot we dwell in reflect and represent the Clouds of Glory in the desert.

While these Clouds of Glory provided guidance, direction, and protection; it is not the first time the Israelites experienced divine clouds in the desert.

The first time clouds appeared was after G-d presented the Ten Commandments at Sinai. Moshe was summoned to heaven by G-d, but he could not ascend for six days because there were clouds in the way. On the seventh day Moshe was able to enter.

Exodus 24:16-18

וַיִּשְׁכֹּ֤ן כְּבוֹד־יְוָה֙ עַל־הַ֣ר סִינַ֔י וַיְכַסֵּ֥הוּ הֶעָנָ֖ן שֵׁ֣שֶׁת יָמִ֑ים וַיִּקְרָ֧א אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֛ה בַּיּ֥וֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִ֖י מִתּ֥וֹךְ הֶעָנָֽן׃ וּמַרְאֵה֙ כְּב֣וֹד יְוָ֔ה כְּאֵ֥שׁ אֹכֶ֖לֶת בְּרֹ֣אשׁ הָהָ֑ר לְעֵינֵ֖י בְּנֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵֽל׃ ַיָּבֹ֥א מֹשֶׁ֛ה בְּת֥וֹךְ הֶעָנָ֖ן וַיַּ֣עַל אֶל־הָהָ֑ר וַיְהִ֤י מֹשֶׁה֙ בָּהָ֔ר אַרְבָּעִ֣ים י֔וֹם וְאַרְבָּעִ֖ים לָֽיְלָה׃ 

The Presence of G-d abode on Mount Sinai, and the cloud hid it for six days. On the seventh day G-d called to Moses from the midst of the cloud. Now the Presence of יוה appeared in the sight of the Israelites as a consuming fire on the top of the mountain. Moses went inside the cloud and ascended the mountain; and Moses remained on the mountain forty days and forty nights.

Therefore, it is evident that these Clouds of Glory represent G-d’s presence. Clouds are visible but without a substance to hold onto. Clouds are beautiful and come in many shades and images. Clouds carry condensed water within them; and sometimes bring forth rain or snow to provide necessary water for life. So too G-d provides sustenance for the earth, however, is without physical substance to hold onto. 

Often in life we are faced with a conundrum about how to proceed - Should I continue the relationship, or choose to end it? Should I stay in this job/career, or is it time to advance? Even when considering which destination should I choose for my vacation?

We may not have the Divine GPS, The Clouds of Glory, at our disposal, but we do have the Divine Torah that has within it all of the directions we need how to proceed. Our task is to learn the wisdom of the Torah so we can travel wisely on our journey through life.

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Epstein
Community Scholar in Residence