Rashbam: Cloud Cover (Acharei Mot)

In the Jewish calendar, the Shabbatot which arrive during Passover do not have normal Torah readings, and therefore I have taken two weeks off from my reading and writing on Rashbam. After several portions of painfully dry commentary on the archaic rituals of Leviticus, I was so excited to have a few weeks to focus elsewhere.

But now that we return to the normal Torah cycle, I feel such a rush of affinity and curiosity for the Rashbam. It’s a joy to return to his company, like an old friend after an absence. His commentary on Lev. 16 is particularly enjoyable, at least compared to previous commentary in Leviticus.

Leviticus 16:2 reads, “God said to Moses: Tell Aaron your brother that he may not come at any time into the Holy Place within the veil, before the cover which is upon the ark, that he not die; for I appear in a cloud over the cover.”

However, the instruction continues, clarifying what Aaron will bring with him when he enters the Holy Place. Apparently, Aaron will be allowed in, but only during the Yom Kippur ritual. How is he supposed to survive encountering God-in-the-cloud-above-the-ark-cover?

Leviticus 16:13 reads, “He shall put the incense on the fire before God, that the cloud of incense may cover the ark of the testimony, that he die not.”

Rashbam pulls it all together:

FOR I APPEAR IN A CLOUD OVER THE COVER: According to the plain meaning of Scripture, this verse means “because it is through a pillar of cloud that I appear regularly over the cover [of the Ark, inside of the Holy of Holies.]” So it says (in Exodus 25:22), “[There I will meet with you,] and I will speak to you from above the cover, from between the two cherubim [that are on the Ark].” If the priest were to see [this pillar of cloud], he would die.

Accordingly God commanded that, when he enters [the Holy of Holies] on the Day of Atonement, he should offer incense there beforehand, inside the Holy of Holies, so as to darken the Temple with a cloud of incense. [Only] then would he bring the blood of the bull and the blood of the goat [into the Holy of Holies]. (Translation Martin Lockshin)

Rashbam suggests that the way to avoid the dangerous God-cloud is to create an incense-cloud that obscures direct sight of the divine. Aaron thus has cloud cover to allow for his safety in performing the sacred Yom Kippur rite.

What can we learn from this anecdote for our lives? Perhaps some of the things we do, whether in a religious sense or in daily life, actually darken our ability to see clearly, and yet at the same time protect us from some dangerous and potentially fatal experience. Is it ever possible that seeking the fullness of truth could be counterproductive? I’m reluctant to take that as absolute guidance, but I’m reminded of Emily Dickinson’s poem:

Tell all the truth but tell it slant —
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth’s superb surprise
As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind —

God, already hidden in a god-cloud, is still too bright for Aaron to encounter unmediated. He needs the incense-cloud for his eyes to adjust. I can imagine an appreciation in our lives for the scaffolding, the baby steps, the slanted almost truth, that moves us slowly closer to deeper Truth.

We may not enter the inner Holy Place at once, but with patience, caution, and helpful tools and practices, we may one day reach greater clarity and connection.