From the Book of Exodus:

The cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle. Moses was not able to enter the tent of meeting because the cloud settled upon it, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle. Whenever the cloud was taken up from the tabernacle, the Israelites would set out on each stage of their journey; but if the cloud was not taken up, then they did not set out until the day that it was taken up. For the cloud of the Lord was on the tabernacle by day, and fire was in the cloud by night, before the eyes of all the house of Israel at each stage of their journey.

(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Exodus 40:34-38 – May 5, 2012)

I’ve been fascinated by the Shekhinah, which is what the cloud and fire described here are all about, for years. The Hebrew word which names the pillar of fire and cloud which accompanied the escaped slaves on their trek across the Sinai desert means “the Presence”, i.e., the presence of God. Whether the Shekhinah is separate from God has been a matter of some debate in Judaism for centuries. Moses Maimonides, also known as Rambam, the 12th Century Egyptian Jewish philosopher, believed the Shekhinah is a distinct entity, a light created to be an intermediary between God and the world. In the next century, the Spanish Rabbi Nahmanides, known as Ramban, disagreed; he considered the Shekhinah to be the essence of God manifested in distinct form. ~ The Shekhinah was believed to be present in the First Temple, but not the Second. In the absence of a Temple, later rabbis have suggested that the Shekhinah appears in a variety of circumstances: when two or three study the Torah together, when a minyan (ten men) pray, when the mysticism of the Merkabah (the divine chariot) is explained, when the Law is studied at night, and when the Shema is recited. God’s Presence is said to be attracted to prayer, to hospitality, to acts of benevolence, to chastity, and to peace and faithfulness in married life. ~ The idea that the Shekhinah is present when two or three study Scripture reminds me of Jesus’ promise: “Where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” (Matthew 18:20) The Daily Office, both Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer, ends with a collect said to have been written by St. John Chrysostom which recalls this promise: “You have promised through your well-beloved Son that when two or three are gathered together in his Name you will be in the midst of them.” ~ The Book of Exodus makes it very clear that the People of God were terrified of the Shekhinah. They would not go near it; only Moses could do so and, as this bit demonstrates, even he could not approach sometimes. Smart people, those ancient Hebrews! They understood the Power they were dealing with. Not so, us modern folks. Christian writer Annie Dillard, in her book Teaching a Stone to Talk (Harper & Row 1982), makes this point in an oft-quote observation: “Does any-one have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake some day and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return.” ~ We are, indeed, children playing with dynamite – or maybe even playing with a nuclear bomb! Thank Heaven our God is a playful god. I do not believe God will awaken and take offense, but I do believe God wants us to move beyond games, to stop simply playing with the power his Presence provides, and to start using that power for good!