Wordplay: When Pillar of Defense got cloudy
Not every military operation has a silver lining.
The world and its events are rushing ahead, some are running (Livni ) and some are not (Barak ), but I'm still stuck somewhere in last week, with my head in the clouds. And when you wander, lonely as a cloud, the sky's the limit.
Following my last pillar (column, that is), a reader drew my attention to a midrash (he was actually nice enough to assume that I had merely forgotten it ), according to which God, appearing before the Israelites in the desert in a pillar of cloud (these days known as "pillar of defense" ) does not only lead them on their way to the Promised Land, but also defends them.
Indeed, even before one gets to the inventive explications offered in the midrashim, the Scripture tells us that when the Egyptians arrived in their pursuit "the pillar of cloud removed from before them, and stood behind them" (Exodus 14:19 ). In modern-day language, the pillar of cloud redeployed to defend the Israelites who were, as it is written later, "sore afraid."
The 11th-century Midrash Tehilim (on Psalm 18 ) tells us that when Pharaoh was hurling arrows and lightning (the Hebrew word for which is barak ), God retaliated with arrows, lightning, crystal rocks, hale and embers - from within the pillar of cloud. Which brings to mind the spectacular success of the Iron Dome in intercepting the missiles coming our way last week. Maybe that system - even more than the operation which highlighted its qualities - should have been rechristened Pillar of Cloud.
Being on cloud nine (I'm told that this means being in seventh heaven, which might mean that my location is really cloud 63 ), as I am wont to be sometimes, I still wonder why the Almighty, with his unlimited resources, chose to appear before his Israelite children in a cloud, which - of all things - took the form of a pillar.
The shape of such a flimsy substance like a cloud is really very much in the eye of the beholder, as Hamlet proves conclusively when he asks Polonius (Act III, Scene 3 ): "Do you see yonder cloud that's almost in shape of a camel?" The suggestive Polonius is willing to accept, at the noble Dane's prodding, that the same cloud is in a shape of a camel, or a weasel or a whale. Antony (in the play he shares with Egyptian Pharaoness Cleopatra, in Act IV, Scene 14 ) knows this full well: "Sometimes we see a cloud that's dragonish; / A vapour sometime like a bear or lion, / A tower'd citadel, a pendent rock, / A forked mountain, or blue promontory / With trees upon't, that nod unto the world, / And mock our eyes with air: thou hast seen these signs; They are black vesper's pageants."
But a pillar? That is a very threatening, macho shape - suitable for those who want to carry a big stick, phallic for sure, and having deterrent qualities aplenty. And yet we're talking about one that is made of a "vapour," a gauzy and pliant substance, implying and suggesting softness, flexibility, adaptability. One may be tempted to see in the pillar of cloud a fusion of attributes - masculine and feminine - as can be seen in the image of the stiff staff in Moses' hands that changes at God's will into an undulating, but no-less menacing, snake before Pharaoh and his court.
All this reminds me of a poem, written in 1915 by the Russian poet Vladimir Mayakovsky. It is a long monologue expressing unrequited love, shouted by the narrator at the woman of his dreams, and at whomever it may concern around the world. The three last words of the poem give it its title, which is very much to our point: "If you like - / I'll be furiously flesh elemental, or - changing to tones that the sunset arouses - / if you like - / I'll be extraordinary gentle, / not a man, but - a cloud in trousers."
The very fact that clouds can be of whatever shape that meets the eye made them very suitable for divination in ancient times. As Aristotle wrote in his treatise "Meteorology" in the fourth century B.C.E.: "The exhalation of water is vapour: air condensing into water is cloud." But the discipline of nephology - i.e., the study of clouds (from the ancient Greek word for "cloud," nephos ) - waited a long time for someone to classify clouds by shape.
That occurred in December 1802, when chemist, pharmacist and amateur meteorologist Luke Howard presented a lecture to the Askesian Society in London, "On the Modifications of Clouds." He proposed that clouds can be categorized in three groups: cumulus (Latin for "heap" ), whose shape Howard described as being "convex or conical heaps, increasing upward from a horizontal base"; stratus (Latin for "layer" ), "a widely extended horizontal sheet, increasing from below."; and cirrus (Latin for "curl of hair" ), "parallel, flexuous fibers extensible by increase in any or all directions." Howard added a fourth category, nimbus (Latin for "rain" ), to describe a situation in which the aforementioned clouds turn into rain, hail or snow.
Howard's lecture created a sensation since, in addition to his novel way of looking at the subject at hand, he also presented watercolors that he'd done of the various phenomena he described.
It is worth noting that none of the categories above relates to clouds in the shape of a pillar, so if you ever see a pillar of cloud, a god (of either gender or both ) is probably lurking within. Indeed, as Merriam-Webster will tell you, nimbus can be defined as "a luminous vapor, cloud, or atmosphere about a god or goddess when on earth." Different dictionaries suggest various Latin etymologies in this context, but they leave one in a fog.
By the way, according to the OED, "cloud" derives from Old English clud, "mass of rock or earth," which connotes - as in the "pillar of cloud" - the notion of something seemingly solid being made, in fact, of thin (or thickening ) air.
But the God of the Jews is not the only deity that flirts with cloudy matters. Zeus - who preferred for business reasons to assume the guise of a bull (so as to elope with Europa ), or a swan (to lay an egg with Leda ) - was once told by his wife, Hera, that King Ixion had attempted to violate her. To test the veracity of her claim, Zeus created a phantom made of clouds in her shape. King Ixion, who was apparently not very discerning, raped the phantom, who conceived and gave birth to the Centaurs.
That might be of interest to certain American Republicans, but in our context it is worth noting that the female phantom in question was named Nephele, after the Greek nephos, which sounds oddly like the Hebrew word nefesh, "soul."
Thus, after journeying from the military, through the theological, into the linguistic, scientific and meteorological, we now find ourselves in the realm of the spiritual. But no such excursion can be considered comprehensive without passing through the digital. Cloud computing seems to be the future for us all. This means, roughly, that whenever we access the World Wide Web, we use resources that are neither here nor there, but somewhere, over the rainbow, in - yes, a cloud. But don't press me about the details, because God, when not appearing in a cloud, is in them.
Luke (12:54 ) quotes Jesus admonishing his contemporaries: "When ye see a cloud rise out of the west, straightway ye say, There cometh a shower; and so it is. And when ye see the south wind blow, ye say, there will be heat; and it cometh to pass.Ye hypocrites, ye can discern the face of the sky and of the earth; but how is it that ye do not discern this time?"
To which Shakespeare's Third Citizen responds in "Richard III" (Act II, Scene 3 ): "When clouds appear, wise men put on their cloaks; / When great leaves fall, the winter is at hand; / When the sun sets, who doth not look for night? / Untimely storms make men expect a dearth. / All may be well; but, if God sort it so, / 'Tis more than we deserve, or I expect."
Two caveats are in order here:
1. If the cloud is mushroom-ish, it probably has nothing to do with God.
2. Sometimes, a cloud is just a cloud.