He spoke to them from the pillar of cloud;
they kept his statutes and the decrees he gave them. — Psalm 99:7
Several years ago, one of Israel’s military operations against the terrorist organization Hamas was given a spectacular name. But it probably got lost in the translation for most people. In the original Hebrew, amud ha’anan literally means “pillar of cloud,”’ but during that campaign, the mainstream media referred to it as “Pillar of Defense.”
Why the change?
To understand how the “pillar of cloud” came to be known as “Pillar of Defense,” we need to return to biblical times when the children of Israel were leaving Egypt. As they stood with the Red Sea before them and the Egyptians behind them, they had nowhere to turn. Just before the miraculous parting of the Red Sea, we discover this miracle: “ . . . The pillar of cloud also moved from in front and stood behind them, coming between the armies of Egypt and Israel . . .” (Exodus 14:19).
The pillar of cloud that had been guiding the Israelites by day moved to the rear in order to protect them from the enemy behind. Jewish tradition teaches that all night long, the Egyptians shot arrows and rocks at the children of Israel, but God “caught” them all in His pillar of cloud.
Now we can understand why Israel chose this term to represent their mission of stopping the Hamas missiles from reaching innocent Israelis. And we can also understand why the media would find “Pillar of Defense” an accurate description of Israel’s intentions. The pillar of cloud is a symbol of the defense of Israel – then and now.
In Psalm 99, we come across the pillar of cloud again, but in a very different context: “He spoke to them from the pillar of cloud . . .” Moses, Aaron, and Samuel would call out to God, and He would answer them through the pillar of cloud that resided within the Tabernacle, the temporary House of God. It seems that the pillar of cloud was a conduit through which these holy men could access divine guidance and then they would follow it.
So which is it? A cosmic shield or a celestial phone line?
The answer is both. The pillar of cloud represented God’s presence on earth. Sometimes it came in the form of protection, and other times as guidance. I hope that for Israel’s sake, it remains both today. With God’s help we will always succeed in protecting our people from harm. Yet, I also pray that our nation will continue to see God’s hand in our protection, and as a result, have greater faith and trust in His guidance.
With prayers for shalom, peace,
Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein
Founder and President