Clouds, God and Harold Ramis z’l

This  week’s Torah reading (parasha Pikudei) brings us to the end of the book of Exodus.

After the communal journey of the Israelites out of Egyptian slavery, through the Red Sea, to Mount Sinai where they received the Torah, the book of Exodus ends on a very private note-Moses himself assembling the Tabernacle. After the Israelites joined together to contribute to this “wandering sanctuary,” and after the skilled craftsmen created all the intricate parts and vessels needed for the service of the Tabernacle, Moses alone puts the pieces together.

It is a bittersweet moment, for as Moses puts together the sanctuary, the community of Israel reaches a new stage in its development. Yet at the same time, Moses’s role in the community shifts somewhat, as his brother Aaron and his descendants take on the priesthood and assume a mantle of leadership-and intersession with the divine-once held by Moses.

When Moses finishes the last piece of the puzzle, God then comes to dwell among the Israelites in the Tabernacle. We read in the Torah, the last verses of Exodus:

When Moses had 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. When the cloud lifted from the Tabernacle, the Israelites would set out, on their various journeys; but if the cloud did not lift, they would not set out until such time as it did lift.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 the house of Israel throughout their journeys.

It is an interesting metaphor, to think of God as a cloud, and yet, fitting. Clouds bring rain, and with it, life. Here in the northwest clouds envelope us with their continuous presence and keep us comfortable. We like to think of God as the life force within us, and that which comforts us.

At the same time, when I think of clouds I also think of the game of watching the clouds go by seeing patterns or images. And when done with a group of people, the images spotted are invariably different-each one has their own impression of what is in the clouds. So too with God. We all have our own impression of what God is to us.

In our own theologies, we may use many different terms to describe God. God, in our Jewish tradition, is beyond naming or description-we need to use our crude language and metaphor to describe something but invariably those descriptions fall short. The Torah uses an anthropomorphic God acting in history-an image meaningful to our ancient ancestors. Later rabbinic teachings use other images. [In the class on Sacred Text that I am teaching at South Puget Sound Community College this quarter, we are currently studying the Mishnah and Talmud, and in one such text we came across the metaphor of God as the Employer-in other words, the one whom we serve and are indebted to.] Our liturgy is ripe with different words for God: God as healer, God as creator, God as liberator. All of these images may speak to us at one time or another, depending on where we are when we encounter them. Or we may craft our own language. The point is, the Torah speaks of God dwelling among the Israelites as a cloud to remind us that God is a formless as a cloud, allowing us all the ability to find in God what we need to find.

Earlier this week the filmmaker and comedian Harold Ramis died. Ramis was responsible for some of the classic comedies of the 1980s and 1990s-movies that I grew up with and were some of my first ventures into “grown-up” comedy. One of his most popular movies was 1993’s “Groundhog Day,” which stars Bill Murray as a misanthropic weatherman sent to cover the emergence of the groundhog on the titular day. Yet Murray’s character is caught in a time loop, forced to relive the same day over and over again until, through a change in his behavior, he is able to break the cycle.

After Ramis’s death a short video clip made the rounds, especially among my rabbi friends. In it he talks about how much to his surprised the movie was a big hit in religious communities. And not just certain faith communities, but seemingly every faith community found a spiritual message in that film. And then he compares it to the Torah and how we Jews read the Torah every year. Because we are all different and each one of us is different every year, we find something new in it. He gets the same reaction from fans of his film. You can see the whole clip here:

 

Harold Ramis on the Metaphor of Ground Hog Day
Harold Ramis on the Metaphor of Groundhog Day

This is what makes a movie a classic. And this is what makes a text like the Torah sacred. We are able to see ourselves in it, and it continually has something to teach us. We are mindful of this as we begin a new stage in this year’s reading journey with the ending of one book and the beginning of another.

And as a new stage of the Israelites’ journey begins in the story of the Torah, we see why the image of God as a cloud is so powerful. Not because it is distant, but because it is so close. And not because it is simply formless, but because the formlessness allows us to create our own form, and develop our own relationship with the divine in a way–and using language–that is meaningful to us.

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