The beginning of this week’s double Torah portion opens with a warning to Aaron that, in addition to not approaching the altar in a state of intoxication, he should be on his guard in the presence of God in the actual sanctuary, lest he expose himself to holiness with too much intensity. The verse resonates with images of Icarus coming too close to the sun, his wings melting from the concentration of heat and light. Moses is told: “Tell your brother Aaron that he is not to come at will into the Shrine behind the curtain, in front of the cover that is upon the ark, lest he die; for I appear in the cloud over the cover.”
In order to retain the mystery and distance between humanity and God, God’s presence is shrouded by the diaphanous image of a cloud. Emblematic of God’s intangibility, the cloud serves as a divider that signals the parameters that Aaron must maintain in this holy of holy places. Traditional Jewish commentators make sure to remind us that this is not the same cloud that accompanies and directs the children of Israel in the desert. Spanish medieval exegete Rabbi Avraham ibn Ezra makes it clear that this is the cloud created from the offering of incense, and not the “ananei kavod,” or clouds of glory, that protected and surrounded the entire encampment. In fact, that latter cloudy presence is the first thing that occupies the “mishkan,” or tabernacle, upon its completion, as we learn in Exodus 40:35-36:
When Moses finished the work, the cloud covered the Tent of Meeting and the presence of the Lord filled the Tabernacle. Moses could not enter the Tent of Meeting because the cloud had settled upon it and the presence of the Lord filled the Tabernacle.
The Talmud (in Tractate Yoma 53a) specifies the distinction between that cloud and the cloud of this week’s Torah reading. That cloud is clearly identified in the last line of the book of Exodus as the one that accompanied the Israelites on their travels: “For over the Tabernacle a cloud of the Lord rested by day, and fire would appear in it by night, in the view of all of the house of Israel throughout their journeys.”
This cloud seems to be a covering over the entire structure and not hovering around the ark alone. The cloud over the ark, providing another divide between the priest and the people and the priest and God, is created through the human means of incense offering. Aaron alone was allowed to burn incense, as we learn in Exodus 30:7, which he did every morning and evening. Interestingly, incense is the only sacrifice which cannot be brought voluntarily.
What is the real difference between these two clouds? If they are both vaporous and presumably penetrable, then why should there be any distinction between them — one on the outside of holiness and one on the inside, so to speak.
Perhaps the answer to this question lies in another biblical text, in I Kings 8:10, when King Solomon describes the Temple upon its dedication:
When the priests came out of the sanctuary — for the cloud had filled the House of the Lord and the priests were not able to remain and perform the service because of the cloud, for the Presence of the Lord filled the House of the Lord — then Solomon declared: The Lord has chosen to abide in a thick cloud: I have now built for You a stately House, a place where You may dwell forever.
The king makes for God a physical dwelling place, but at the same time describes God’s real home as a thick cloud. The clouds that accompanied the children of Israel were a sign of protection, and as such were visible to all of Israel and served as an impenetrable wall to Moses until they parted. The clouds of incense are those of revelation and, because of that, only Aaron could offer the incense, and it could not be given as a free-will offering; its amorphous nature symbolized God and His presence. Because clouds can be walked through and not felt when in their very midst, it was up to Aaron to create human boundaries to separate himself from them, unlike the clouds of glory that operated regardless of man’s creation of his parameters.
Another important distinction in this week’s Torah portion besides that of the physical appearance of the clouds is the aspect of smell that accompanied the incense. Smell is a fragile sense and yet can transport us easily to other places. It is remarkable that even with a distance of years, memory is often triggered powerfully by a smell. This olfactory gift is ethereal in quite a divine way. Michel Montaigne wrote in his essay “On Smells” of their effect upon his “animal spirits,” such that smell convinces him …
of the truth of what is said about the invention of odours and incense in our Churches (a practice so ancient and widespread among all the nations and religions) that it was aimed at making us rejoice, exciting us and purifying us so as to render us more capable of contemplation.
The cloud that is closest in proximity to where God and humanity meet is one of deep fragrance and thick appearance. Together, they signal a glimpse of what is beyond, because neither the cloud nor the smell created by incense is tangible, yet the presence of both is heavily felt. If we try to grasp a cloud, our hands move needlessly in the air, capturing nothing. Instead we must be content with the presence of the Divine allowed to us in these powerful yet ephemeral hints, as Solomon himself concludes in I Kings 8:27:
But will God really dwell on Earth? Even the heavens to their uttermost reaches cannot contain You, how much less this House that I have built!
Erica Brown is a writer and educator who teaches for The Jewish Federation of Greater Washington and the Wexner Foundation, and consults for the Jewish Agency and other Jewish nonprofits.