Classic Questions

What did the King of Arad hear? (v. 21:1)

Rashi: He heard that Aharon had died and that the clouds of glory had departed.

Talmud: Three good leaders arose for the Jewish people, namely, Moshe, Aharon, and Miriam, and three special gifts were given to the Jewish people through them: the well, the cloud, and the manna. The well was in Miriam's merit, the cloud in Aharon's merit, and the manna in Moshe's merit.

When Miriam died, the well ceased... When Aharon died, the clouds of glory disappeared... but these two returned in Moshe's merit.

But when Moshe died, all of them disappeared, as the verse states: "I cut off the three shepherds in one month" (Zech. 11:8). Did they all die in one month? Miriam died in Nisan, Aharon in Av, and Moshe in Adar! Rather, this teaches you that the three good gifts which were given in their merit all disappeared in one month (Ta'anis 9a).

The Rebbe's Teachings

Departure of the Clouds of Glory (Rashi v. 1)

In his comments on verse 1, Rashi cites the teaching of the Talmud that when Aharon passed away the clouds of glory departed (just as the well had departed when Miriam passed away).

There appears, however, to be an inconsistency between these cases, on the literal level. When the well ceased upon Miriam's passing, we find that the people reacted immediately: "The congregation had no water, so they ganged up against Moshe and Aharon, and the people quarreled with Moshe" (20:2-3). Why, then, do we not find that the people complained to Moshe, after Aharon's passing, that the clouds of glory had departed? After all, the clouds protected them from the sun, cleaned their clothes, guided them on all their journeys, flattened hills, raised valleys, and destroyed snakes and scorpions. Surely, then, the people would have complained to Moshe that these forms of assistance were now lacking?

Was the Cloud Still Required?

At first glance, we might argue that the people did not complain because, at this point in time, all the above-mentioned forms of assistance were no longer crucial. Perhaps, having reached the edge of the desert, the sun was no longer so hot, especially considering that the hottest part of the summer was ending (for Aharon passed away on the first of Av— see 33:38). Being at the border of a civilized country, facilities would have been available to purchase and clean their clothing. The Jewish people were now traveling along clear paths, rather than through barren wasteland, so the cloud's navigation and protective qualities were, perhaps, no longer crucial, and since the cloud "went ahead of them by a distance of three days' travel" (Rashi to 10:35), perhaps it had flattened out all the remaining routes in advance.

So, on the literal level, we might argue that no complaint was issued about the departure of the clouds since the Jewish people could now manage without them.

In truth, however, the clouds were still required, because:

  1. They were not merely a navigation aide, but a system of Divine guidance to ensure that the Jewish people were led in the right path. And, in addition to showing the people where to go, the clouds also informed them when to travel. Thus, at this point, when they still had numerous journeys to undertake, the clouds were crucial.
  2. Though they were currently at the edge of the desert near a civilized country, they subsequently traveled seven journeys back into the desert (Rashi, v. 5), requiring protection from heat and the other benefits of the clouds.
  3. They still had many wars to fight, and the clouds offered them protection from "arrows and catapults" (Rashi on Shemos 19:4).
  4. In any case, later, in Parshas Balak, Rashi indicates that the clouds did return after Aharon's passing: "The clouds folded back from the area above him and the sun shone on him" (Rashi to 25:4).

So the question stands: Why do we not find that the return of the clouds was requested after Aharon's passing, nor any mention of their return in scripture?

The Explanation

In order to resolve the above problem let us first pose another question. Why, when referring to the clouds, does Rashi sometimes use the term "clouds of glory" (Vayikra 23:43; Bamidbar 20:29, 21:1, 26:13, 33:40; Devarim 8:4, 10:6) but on other occasions simply refer to "the clouds"? (See Shemos 17:9, 19:4; Bamidbar 20:22, 25:4; Devarim 25:18).

Apparently there were two types of clouds; i.e., being that there were in fact "seven clouds" (Rashi to 10:34), we can presume that some clouds would have performed the various functions of flattening hills, killing scorpions, and cleaning clothes, etc., and that other clouds simply accompanied the Jewish people as a sign of honor and glory. When Rashi mentions just "clouds," he is referring to the necessary clouds, and when he speaks of "clouds of glory," he means the extra clouds that were present solely to honor the Jewish people.

So when Rashi writes that the "clouds of glory had departed" after Aharon's death, he is referring only to some of the clouds, the ones which acted as a sign of honor, and not the clouds which actually helped the Jewish people in the desert. Therefore, the people did not complain to Moshe that they were lacking the assistance that the clouds provided after the "clouds of glory" had departed, since they were still left with the same number of necessary clouds as before, which catered to all their needs.

Rashi and the Talmud

In the final analysis, we see that Rashi's view, based on scripture on the literal level, differs from that of the Talmud (cited in Classic Questions above). The Talmud maintains that the clouds of glory "returned in Moshe's merit," whereas Rashi maintains that the clouds of glory departed and never returned.

Nevertheless, we find that Rashi did appear to accept the Talmud's statement that Miriam's well returned in Moshe's merit, as he writes below that when Moshe passed away, "the well ceased" (Rashi to 21:20).

This begs the question: If Rashi accepted that Miriam's well returned after her passing in Moshe's merit, then why did he reject the notion that Aharon's clouds of glory returned in Moshe's merit?

In truth, however, it appears that on the literal level Rashi also rejected the idea that Miriam's well returned in Moshe's merit. Rather, after the well had ceased due to Miriam's passing, Moshe took the responsibility as leader and provider of the Jewish people to ensure that they had a supply of water. Therefore, when the clouds of glory departed, there was no need for Moshe to ensure their return, as the remaining clouds still provided the necessary support for the Jewish people.

(Based on Likutei Sichos vol. 18, p. 253ff.)