Throughout the Israelites’ long sojourn in the harsh desert, all their physical needs were miraculously supplied. Manna came down from heaven each morning, while water flowed from a rock. The Israelites were also surrounded by special protective clouds, which served a multitude of purposes, from clearing away dangerous pests, to sheltering them from the scorching desert sun, flattening the ground and guiding them on their way.

The Talmudic sages1 teach that water was provided in the merit of Miriam the Prophetess, the older sister of Moses. They deduce this from the fact that immediately after the Torah informs us of Miriam’s passing, it states, “The congregation had no water; so they assembled against Moses and Aaron.”2 The people complained bitterly: “Why have you brought the congregation of the L‑rd to this desert so that we and our livestock should die there?” This led to the infamous incident of Moses striking the rock, even though he had been instructed to speak to it to restore the water supply to the Israelites.3

Likewise, the rabbis taught that the “clouds of glory” were provided in the merit of Aaron, Moses’ older brother. They derive this from the fact that the Torah4 informs us of an attack by one of the Canaanite kings immediately after we are told about Aaron’s passing.5 As Rashi explains, “He heard that Aaron had died and the clouds of glory had departed. ”This knowledge emboldened the king to launch an attack on the Israelites, as he surmised that they were now unprotected. Eventually, the Israelites successfully counterattacked and beat the Canaanites back. According to some traditions, the clouds were restored in the merit of Moses.6

Why No Backlash?

We read about a massive backlash when the water stopped upon Miriam’s death, and we also are told how it was restored by Moses. In the case of the clouds disappearing upon Aaron’s death, however, we do not hear of any protest, nor are we told in which way they returned. The clouds that accompanied the Israelites fulfilled indispensable functions that made their stay in the desert possible; how then could there have been not a single complaint about their absence?

Perhaps there were indeed no complaints, because by the time of Aaron’s death the Israelites were on the border of the Promised Land and didn’t need them anymore? This is clearly impossible, as the Israelites took several further journeys after Aaron’s passing, including going backwards into the desert,7 and would have still required the services provided by the clouds – protecting them from the perils of the wild wastelands.

More than One Kind of Cloud

To shed light on this perplexing problem, the Rebbe offers insight into the role of the clouds, with attention to the minutest detail. Perusing the Midrashic texts and Rashi’s commentary to the Torah, one will see that sometimes the term “clouds of glory” is used,8 while at other times it simply refers to “clouds.”9 Why is this? Is there any difference between the two?

The Rebbe explains that according to Rashi and those Midrashic sources, there is indeed an important distinction. “Clouds of glory” refers to those clouds whose entire purpose was to honor the Israelites with a visible manifestation of the Divine Presence. They were, as their name implies, intended to bring glory to the Children of Israel. But when the term “clouds” is used alone, it refers to the many practical services they provided, such as shielding the Israelites from the harsh desert climate and protecting them from violent attacks. Those functions of the clouds were not for glory, but were key to their ability to survive in the wilderness.

What Happened When the Clouds Disappeared

Now we understand what happened when Aaron passed away: “the clouds of glory departed,” and those honorific clouds indeed never came back, according to many. The other clouds – the ones that protected and assisted them in the desert – those never left, which is why there was no outcry or complaint about their absence upon Aaron’s passing.

We now also understand what happened during the attack by the Canaanite king. As Rashi explained, “He heard that Aaron had died and the clouds of glory had departed, so he thought he had permission to wage war on the Israelites.” Rashi does not say that the king judged that he was better able to wage war, but rather that he was permitted to do so. The utilitarian clouds were still in place, so the prospects of winning a war were no better, but he took the fact that the clouds of glory had departed as an indication that the Almighty was fine with him having a go at His people.

It is in part to commemorate those clouds of glory – that had no practical purpose, but were intended purely as a mark of honor and affection – that we observe the festival of Sukkot each year. Rashi explains that the verse “for in booths I had you dwell when I led you out of Egypt”10 refers to the clouds of glory.

The regular clouds were provided to ensure their survival, and thus G‑d was “obligated,” as it were, to provide those, since He had led them into the danger zone in the first place. The additional clouds of glory were entirely extra and a symbol of unbounding Divine love.

In recognition of that special gesture, we observe a festival in which we enter a Sukkah which represents the embrace of our loving Creator and Protector.

The same applies to the relationships we have with one another: the mundane acts of kindness we do for each other are important, but they are separate from the acts of affection that have no practical benefit and are intended to convey our love. The practical acts of service are no substitute for overt acts of devotion, just as sentimental gestures are not a replacement for down-to-earth support.

Adapted from Likutei Sichot, vol. 18, Parshat Chukat III.