From Egypt to Sinai III


Moshe Ben-Chaim



Last year we noted quite an amazing parallel between the Jews’ Egyptian exodus and journey to Sinai, and the actual structure of the Temple.

The Jews left Egypt behind, with all of Egypt’s animal deification. God’s created pillars of cloud by day, and fire by night led their path, as they were also fed the manna: each day in proportion to their consumption. Their daily subsistence was in God’s hands, and they trusted He could and would provide in the desert. They finally arrived at Sinai some seven weeks later. They received the Tablets of Stone upon a fiery mountain, upon which they were warned, and guarded from ascending, lest they die for assuming something could be seen in connection with God’s Revelation.

In parallel, as one enters the Temple, he leaves the animal sacrifice altar behind him (it was outside the Temple). As he enters, he approaches the incense altar used to create smoke, the table of the showbread, and the menorah. And just as upon Sinai we received the Tablets and could not ascend, so too, the priests are prohibited from entering the Holy of Holies, in which the Tablets rest in the gold Ark (representing fire).

We concluded that just as the Jews leaving Egypt to arrive at Sinai required a process of refinement through God’s provision of manna, and the pillars of cloud and fire…so too, all generations require the Temple, which duplicates phenomena that forged Jewish development. Just as the nation was formed with specific lessons, so too, each and every Jew requires those lessons if we are to be perfected as well.

We abandoned Egypt with Mount Sinai and Torah as our destination. But we traveled from the former to the latter with certain lessons. Why were the lessons of manna, and the pillars of cloud and fire indispensable to the Jews’ development? The fact that animal worship is absolutely wrong (Maimonides states our sacrifices are concessions) implies that abandoning figures altogether would be the correct approach. But God in fact commanded Moses to forge two humanlike figures on the Ark, our ultimate destination after leaving the animal-worshipping Egypt. It appears counterintuitive that repudiating animal worship should engage a practice endorsing other life forms. Let us address this issue first.

Maimonides states (Guide, book III, chap VLV) “If there had only been one figure of a cherub, the people would have been misled and would have mistaken it for God's image which was to be worshipped, in the fashion of the heathen; or they might have assumed that the angel [represented by the figure] was also a deity, and would thus have adopted a Dualism. By making two cherubim and distinctly declaring “the Lord is our God, the Lord is One", Moses dearly proclaimed the theory of the existence of a number of angels; he left no room for the error of considering those figures as deities, since [he declared that] God is one, and that He is the Creator of the angels, who are more than one.”  Maimonides teaches that the cherubs – along with the Shema’s opening verse – functioned to counter any notion of idolatry. We now appreciate how God refutes the notion of idolatry; by claiming He is “one”, while simultaneously commanding man to create duplicate cherubs. We also learn of the truth of angels, those forces through which man gains knowledge, thus, they are attached to the housing (ark) of the law. The ark, thereby, addresses the former, corrupt mindset of the Egyptian-bound Jew who accepted animal deification. However, this transition was not that simple. The Jews required manna, and the pillars, which guided them. Why?

The manna served to create a complete reliance upon God for the Jews’ very subsistence. It is evident that although these saved Jews had killed Egypt’s god – the Paschal Lamb – this one-time act was insufficient. They still required an additional lesson…on a daily basis. Regular reliance on God for their lives was this lesson, afforded through the manna. Perhaps the absence of a response from God for 210 years in Egypt had conditioned those Jews into a certain mode of thinking. We hear people today complain “Where was God during the Holocaust?” Our response is “devastation does not equate to injustice, or lack of recognition”. For how much have we studied regarding God’s laws of astrophysics, or biology, that we can rightly claim complete knowledge of these areas? Similarly, we have not studied all there is to know about God’s justice so as to justify such a complaint from Holocaust survivors. No, we can’t answer every question, but let us not confuse unanswered questions with any injustice by God. This was God’s response to Job’s complaint if His injustice to Job. Job was taught of his ignorance of God’s natural laws, thereby teaching him that he was all the more ignorant of the abstract laws of God’s justice.


Now, perhaps those Jews leaving Egypt required a multifaceted approach to condition their thinking towards truths. They first required the knowledge that their fate is not in man’s hands, as it was for so long in Egypt. The manna taught them to look to God each day for their very lives. But they also required a constant reminder of His presence. Besides offering shade from the desert sun, the miraculous pillar of cloud displayed God’s providence at every moment. It also taught them that God is “clouded” from their understanding.

At night, again, the pillar of fire satisfied the practical need for light. But it also carried another lesson. At night, man’s internal, instinctual world experiences a heightened state of passionate increase and urges. This is when the Jews required the ever-present focus on God. The Talmud teaches that one must relieve himself at night, as he does by day. This unveils the tendency in man to be less modest at night. And this is due to man’s predisposition to act based on social approval. Thus, when no one else can see man under the cloak of darkness, man tends to be less modest. Other instincts are also aroused. The Rabbis also state that one awake at night should lie on his bed and be still. This is because the instincts are stronger, and sin is much easier. Therefore, lying still on one’s bed allows man to ponder his Creator, and turn from sin. Therefore, we might suggest that at night, the pillar of fire served to sustain the Jews’ focus on God, when their instincts might run amok.


The 12 loaves of showbread in the Temple remind us that God is the source of our sustenance. The Jews who left Egypt required that first lesson, in the form of the manna. They needed to redirect all their energies towards God who saved them from bondage, for the sole reason that they recognize Him. We must know that our lives are due to God.

The cloud created by the Temple’s incense altar teaches God’s providence, as our incense worship is sensible, only if God is omniscient. We must know that God is aware of all our actions and thoughts…and did not abandon us in Egypt, or today. Yet, we cannot know Him essentially, as His nature is impossible for a human to fathom, as if a cloud intervenes. Thus, cloud teaches that awareness of God must always be coupled with His completely hidden nature.

And as in the Temple, the menorah of seven branches teaches us that our God is the only God, the God of creation who rested on Day 7. So too, the Jews who left Egypt also had to undergo this lesson. The inner world of man’s instincts must be understood, and must not be allowed to run amok under night’s cloak of darkness. So too, our unseen world of human emotion and instinctual urges must be brought into daylight. God’s pillar of fire lit the night, illuminating the Jews to their instincts so as not to fall prey to the emotions that earned Egypt its fate. Our inner world of instincts tends to convince us of the “reality” of their pleasure. Yet, we must abandon such thinking, and recognize that the only true world is God’s world, which He created. We must swap our fantasies for reality – our darker world for illuminated truth.


These lessons help all Jews – then and now – to recognize primary lessons: Manna/Showbread: Our daily lives must retain the focus on God. Incense Altar/Cloud: Our actions are under God’s scrutiny. Menora/Fire: And our emotional lives must not be left in darkness, as did Egypt.

Following such a path, we too can earn the life where God directs our path from an Egyptian lifestyle of instinctual notions, to a life of Torah knowledge.