I’ve Looked At Clouds From Both Sides Now

by Rabbi David Zaslow

כִּי עֲנַן יְהוָה עַל-הַמִּשְׁכָּן יוֹמָם וְאֵשׁ תִּהְיֶה לַיְלָה בּוֹ לְעֵינֵי כָל בֵּית יִשְׂרָאֵל בְּכָל מַסְעֵיהֶם 

For the cloud of the YHVH was upon the tabernacle by day, and there was fire therein by night, in the sight of all the house of Israel, throughout all their journeys.

In Hebrew the same word is used to mean both “eye” and “well” (עַיִן ayin). Which meaning came first? That’s hard to tell, but the metaphor embedded between the difference in meaning between these two words travels both ways. An “eye” is the “well” of a person’s face, and, a “well” is the “eye” of the earth.” For centuries scholars have considered the possible connection between the Hebrew words for “cloud” עֲנַן and “sight” עֵינִי (as in Exodus 40:38 above). Although their etymological relationship probably cannot be proven, they certainly seem like lost cousins when the words are reduced to the two-letter root ע•ן ayin and nun. Just as in English, the Hebrew word for “cloud” is been used to mean both a physical “cloud” and the metaphorical “cloud” meaning “obscure” or “unclear.” We say we have “cloudy vision” both English and Hebrew, or when two people understand each other they are said to see “eye to eye.”1 and there is no reason to think that the Biblical writers did not see this association the two words that have very similar spellings except for the very soft consonant י yod, which is comparable to the English letter “y.” In Hebrew prayer books two יְיָ yods are used to represent God’s name. So, on a poetic level we can say that when we insert God’s name into a “cloud” we have “sight.”

According to the speculative two-letter root studies of Fabre d’Olivet the words for “eye” and “cloud” do have a common linguistic ancestor. In addition, according to d’Olivet, one of the Hebrew words for “sin” also shared this root.2 The word עָווֹן avone is a “sin” that can “cloud” our “eye” from properly seeing. The word עָוֹן avone  is often translated as “iniquity,” and literally means “twisted, perverse, bent, and deviated.” Arising out of a twisted and distorted view of reality an avone is an immoral sin arising from out of control emotions or lust. An avone is often committed out of a weakness in character, and not necessarily in conscious defiance of God. This type of sin is associated with many addictions. The person committing this ind of sin is often self-deluded, and may even believe that he or she has good reason for the behavior. For example, vengeful thoughts and most forms of gossip fall into this category of sin.

The Gesenius Lexicon reminds us that עָנָן anan meaning “cloud” was also used in the Bible to mean “divination.” Was this kind of soothsaying classified as an avone kind of sin by the Hebrews? Or, were the shape of clouds used as a means of divination in Biblical times? It is possible, although Dr. Ernest Klein says that “most” scholars have given up this latter association. However, Dr. Klein then goes on to associate the word for “cloud” to anna, an Arabic word for “appearance” which once again brings in the possibility that the sight of an “eye” is associated to both “cloud” and “divination.”

With a bit of poetic license we can give at the above verse from Torah (Exodus 40:38) a unique interpretation. Here is an example: “when that which obscured the vision of the the people ascended, they could move journey (lit. “pull up their tent stakes”). But when their sight was obscured by cloudy uncertainty, they remained at the same camp.” Besides the moon what brings sight to people during the night? A good fire, torch, or lantern. So even at night the Israelites were permitted to see what was ahead of them. What is the underlying principle of movement and rest during the Exodus? First, the cloud (uncertainty, doubt, obscurity sight) must ascend so that we can move forward. Then at night, we are given a vision of tomorrow by the light God’s holy camp fire. This is what guided the Israelites for all forty-two journeys during all forty years in the wilderness. The Israelites learned how to read the clouds, just as today we are learning how to “read” our emotions. We are learning how to “read” that which obscures us from making clear-sighted decisions as we move forward in our lives.

The Paradox of Clouds

I’ve looked at clouds from both sides now
From up and down, and still somehow
It’s cloud illusions I recall
I really don’t know clouds at all

                                                                               by Joni Mitchell

In popular American culture we extend the meaning of clouds to situations that are sometimes negative and sometimes positive. We speak of someone’s thoughts being cloudy (meaning “unclear” or “obscure”). Just look at the idiomatic expressions about clouds that have a somewhat negative connotation. We say that “every cloud has a silver lining” as if the cloud were a entity symbolic of painful situations. We tell someone, “get your head out of the clouds” as if clouds were a symbol of unrealistic thinking. We say that someone is “under a cloud of suspicion,” implying that the opaque nature of clouds is represents a way of hiding guilt.

On the other hand, when someone is happy we say that they are “on cloud nine” or “walking on clouds.” So, what it is? Happiness or obscurity? Although Biblical Hebrew also had this same duel notion in the extended meaning of the word “cloud,” the Torah speaks of clouds in their protective capacity. For example, “And the YHWH went before them by day in a pillar of cloud, to lead them the way; and by night in a pillar of fire, to give them light; that they might go by day and by night (Exodus 13:21).” The cloud protected the Israelites in the desert from the heat of the day, just as the pillar of fire warmed them in the cold nights in the Arabian Peninsula. An an equally positive quality of clouds is seen when Moses is told, “Behold, the Glory of the YHWH appeared in the cloud (Exodus 16:10).” In its protective capacity the cloud is identified as a kind of protective covering, or roofing, in the sacred meeting place. The Torah declares, “And the cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the Glory of YHWH filled the tabernacle. Exodus 40:44.”

On the other hand, in the great vision of the prophet Ezekiel, just before he beholds the mystical chariot, he describes a cloud that Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan teaches about. Rabbi Kaplan writes that in the Zohar the cloud Ezekiel saw was emblematic of obscurity. The prophet reports, “And I looked, and, behold, a stormy wind came out of the north, a great cloud, with a fire flashing up, so that a brightness was round about it; and out of the midst thereof as the color of electrum, out of the midst of the fire (Ezekiel 1:4).” Rabbi Kaplan writes,3 “The Zohar teaches that the ‘stormy wind,’ the ‘great cloud,’ and the ‘flashing fire’ refer to the three levels of the husk that it is root of all evil. These confuse the mind, and serve as barriers to one who would ascend into the spiritual domain.” He continues that the great cloud “…is an opaqueness of the mind, where nothing can be seen or experienced, and it will discourage the prophet if he does not have the will to proceed further…he must work and strive to penetrate the cloud.…While the cloud is an obliteration of sensation, the fire is an overabundance of sensation, which threatens and repels the prophet. The cloud shows the prophet that one who is not worthy will see nothing, while the fire indicates that there can be great danger as well.”

Although in the Book of Lamentations the prophet Jeremiah cries to God that “You have covered Yourself with a cloud so that our prayer should not pass through (Lamentations 3:44)” the prophet Isaiah celebrates the cloud when God proclaims that “Like a thick cloud I have blotted out your transgressions, and your sins return to me as a cloud for I have redeemed you (Isaiah 44:22).” So, we clearly get the the Bible shows us the two sides of the symbolism of clouds. On the one hand it is protective, and creates a covering for the Tabernacle. On the other hand, the cloud represents that which cannot be penetrated, obscuring sight.

Pardon the paraphrase Joni, but I have looked at clouds from both sides now… and it is cloud illusions that I am recalling here. And, I must admit that I too don’t know clouds at all. But I do know paradox, and I think the answer (עָנָה anah) to the secret of the cloud (עָנָן anan) may be hidden in the mystery. Have you ever walked in a misty, foggy field or forest with a friend? Do you remember how quietly your friend could speak and her voice was audible a hundred feet away? Fog, as we know, is a excellent carrier and transmitter of sound. Even our whispers are carried long distances when we enter a fog. Yet, as sound is carried, sight is limited in the midst of a fog. We say “we are in a fog” when we can’t think very clearly. In nature, fog decreases the sense of sight but amplifies the sense of hearing. In the Torah (Deuteronomy 6:4) Moses doesn’t say to the Hebrews, “See O Israel,” but rather, “Hear, O Israel” as if sound were the preferred sense through which to experience the Divine. There is a mystery in limiting sight in order to increase hearing, and so we close our eyes when chanting the Shema.

The mystery seems to have to do with what we perceive as being near and far. Just as the fog conducts sound and obscures sight, so sound seems to brings close that which is actually far. Try listening to someone you care for speaking with your eyes are open. The words you hear may be inspiring or beautiful, but sight creates a sense of the “reality” of your separation from that which is outside of you. When you listen with your eyes open you have what Martin Buber would call an I-It relationship with the person speaking. Now try listening to that same person speaking with your eyes closed. Something mysterious happens to your depth perception. It is more difficult to discern how far away the person is to you without your eyesight. In fact, if you have ever been led in a guided meditation by someone you trust and who has a soothing voice, it can seem as if the words are coming from inside of you rather than from someone else. On a allegorical level Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach taught that this is the reason we involuntarily close our eyes when we kiss someone we love. It’s as if our whole being is saying, “You’re part of me, I’m part of you. We are one. I love you!”

A cloud is a protective barrier in the desert – it is often a welcome sign holding the promise or rain in dry lands. It’s no wonder that the extended meanings of the word “cloud” in the Hebrew mind had to do with “cover” and protection, and did not have the same kind of negative connotation as it does in English. As we said, God appears in a cloud, and the cloud is indicative of the resting place of God’s Presence. Metaphorically, we can say that God appears within obscurity. When we clear we become rational and are a bit separate from the divine in our lives. When we are a bit lost, and unclear there is a greater opportunity for us to sense the Presence of divinity. We think we need God less when there is clarity in our lives, but when something obscures our vision we are drawn closer to the Divine.

A related paradox regarding sight is that we see farthest at night. We think that light permits us to see, and on one level it does, but light only illuminates that which is close to us. In fact, light actually prevents us from seeing the farthest distances. When can we see stars? At night, when there is only darkness between our eyes and each star. As fog conducts sound, so darkness conducts sight. At night we can see stars that are light years away. During the day the sunlight prevents us from seeing those great distances. The light of the sun obliterates any possibility of seeing the stars. Light permits us to see that which is close to us. As the prophet Joni taught, “It’s cloud illusions I recall.” And in the end I must admit, “I really don’t know clouds at all.”

1 In Isaiah 52:8 the watchman are said to see ְּעַיִן בְּעַיִן eye to eye concerning Jerusalem.
2 Most etymologists agree associations between all words sharing the ע•ן Ayin-Nun root are not necessarily cognates. Whereas the Hebrew words for “eye” and “well” are cognates, the association between “cloud” and “eye” is speculative.
3 From Meditation and the Bible by Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan, Samuel Weiser, Inc., p. 39-40. Rabbi Kaplan is citing Zohar 2:81a, 2:203a, 3:123a, 3:227a, and Pardes Rimonim 25.7.

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