Mishpatim concludes1 with Moshe’s ascent of Mt. Sinai, an ascent undertaken after the Torah had already been given.2 The last verse reads:3 “Moshe went into the cloud and climbed the mountain. Moshe remained on the mountain for 40 days and 40 nights.” Rashi4 notes: “This cloud was like smoke, and G‑d made for Moshe a path therein.”

Regarding the time when G‑d gave the Torah, the verse states explicitly:5 “The whole of Mt. Sinai was smoking, because G‑d had descended upon it in fire.” Here, however, the word used is “cloud” — a cloud merely similar to smoke.

Why the difference?

Smoke is produced when a physical entity is consumed by fire.6 Thus the nature of the smoke depends entirely on the physical properties of the object being burned: the more refined the object, the cleaner it will burn and the thinner the smoke; the cruder the object, the thicker and more acrid the smoke. Hence, smoke can indicate the degree of coarseness or refinement of an object.

Just as this is so physically, so too with regard to an object’s degree of consumption within G‑dliness:7 A revelation of “fire” from above causes the nullification of physicality and its subsequent consumption within holiness.

This, then, is the difference between the two verses: “The whole of Mt. Sinai was smoking” refers to the time when the Torah was being given. At that time, the revelation of G‑dliness was an act from above — “because G‑d had descended upon it in fire,” i.e., the revelation came about because G‑d revealed Himself8 — while the world was still in a coarsened state.9

This revelation brought about the nullification and consumption of the physical world; “The whole of Mt. Sinai was smoking” — the tremendous amount of smoke signifying that the world had yet to be refined.

Our Torah portion, however, pertains to a time after the world was purified by the giving of the Torah. Therefore “G‑d’s descent in fire” did not cause actual smoke. Rather, “its extreme fineness caused the Torah to term it ‘cloud’ rather than ‘smoke.’ ”10

Rashi notes, however, that “This cloud was like smoke.” He does so because it was unlike the cloud mentioned in earlier verses, since it resulted from “the appearance of G‑d’s glory on the mountain top like a devouring flame.”11 As such, it was “like smoke, ” since it was G‑dliness causing nullification within the physical world.

And though this was after the Torah had already been given, the griminess and turbidity that results from consumption of corporeality still remained. For since the intent of giving the Torah was to make a dwelling place for G‑d in the lowest level, the cloud that Moshe had to enter to receive the Torah and bring it down was “like smoke” — a revelation from above that nullifies the coarseness of created beings.

But because this took place after the giving of the Torah — an event that brought about a general refinement of the world — Moshe did not actually enter smoke, but a cloud that was “like smoke.”

The lesson in terms of our divine service is as follows. Some people are extremely reluctant to lower themselves in order to refine the lowliest levels.

The verse therefore teaches that it is necessary to uplift even the lowest degree of earthiness — the coarse and inanimate mountain itself is to be consumed with the fire of Torah and mitzvos.

As to the fear that descending so low may cause a person to be overcome by “smoke inhalation,” we are told that “G‑d made for Moshe a path therein” — we are assured that we will not become spiritually soiled, for G‑d will provide us with a clear path.

Based on Likkutei Sichos , Vol. XVI, pp. 275-282.