By Rabbi Sam Yolen, Congregation Beth Israel (Lebanon)
On average, I receive about two or three calls a week from people seeking answers.
“Rabbi!” the person on the other line cries, “With all the suffering going on around the world - where is God?”
This is a very legitimate question. With war, famine, persecution, plague, and everything else, it’s only natural to contemplate what exactly God is up to lately. I admit that sometimes it’s hard to see through the clouds of darkness, and so when I am asked, for example, “With all that’s happening in Russia’s war with Ukraine, where is God?” I respond in earnest, “Somewhere in the pain, there is God. Somewhere in the confusion, there is God. Somewhere in the prayers of the survivors, there is God.”
There’s a phrase you may have heard before: “the fog of war.” While originally penned by Prussian General Carl von Clauswitz in the 1830s to describe the insecurity of knowledge during battle, the term has since extended far beyond the war room. It is most applicable to today’s modern information age.
“The fog of war” is a nebulous term which subsumes all conditions and assumptions made about one’s faculties, resources, tactical knowledge, landscape of battle, and conditions of engagement upon which military forces clash. This “fog” is something that obscures a crisp picture into a confusing disarray and can be advantageous to those sowing misinformation and confusion, specifically in battle.
Disinformation, psy ops, mass formation, mass psychosis, emotional triggers, fake news, false flags, propaganda, social media bans, trusting “experts,” following “science,” public figures canceled, comments “ratio-ed,” and more.
I’m sure some, if not all of the terms above have made their way into your political lexicon as of late, but if you haven’t heard or understood the former jargon, you may be better off for it. Each term above is just another cloud in the dense fog of misinformation that has perpetually confounded those seeking a clear picture of modern polemics. Each obfuscating cloud of doubt obscures large institutions’ ability to address why our society has struggled to unify our population around clear issues of public safety, geopolitics, and social cohesion. Similar to during a hot war, when the disinformation fog rolls in, we are perplexed and confused. When the disinformation fog finally rolls out, our vision is restored, and calmer heads prevail.
Courageous leadership in this period of foggy liminality is a scarce commodity. To see through the “fog of war” is nearly impossible - one must feel their way through.
To be a leader does not mean being unafraid of the lack of visibility. Rather, it means using your heart and faithfulness to overcome the fear that tries to misguide you. This strength of character is exactly what Moses represents in Exodus 19:9 when God addresses him, “I will come to you in a thick cloud, in order that the people may hear when I speak with you and so trust you ever after.” The ability to be trusted is linked to the ability to enter the deep fog. So what exactly is the thick cloud?
I believe the thick cloud containing God’s essence is the same confusion, darkness, and swirling uncertainty that may paralyze us today. I believe it renders us incapable of seeing. The Hebrew word for “thick cloud” is not like a usual cloud in the sky, anan (ayin, nun, nun), but arafel (ayin, reish, fay, lamed) which added in gematria equals 385, the same numerical value as Shekhina, God’s presence on Earth.
In our Kabbalat Shabbat liturgy, Psalm 97:2 describes God within the fog by referencing the line “anan v’arafel savivav,” - “clouds and thick darkness surround him; righteousness and justice are the foundation of his throne” (note: the Psalms are traditionally ascribed to King David).
Also, in Bible commentary written by Rabbeinu Bachya, Bachya Ben Asher of the 13th century Spain, the word “arafel” is connected to Rosh Hashanah’s musaf amidah prayer, when we recite, “you revealed yourself in the clouds of brilliance,” or “v’naglita aleyhem b’araflei tohar.” These clouds of brilliance, this fogginess of God’s presence, the fog of war today, is experienced by all people, albeit to varying degrees.
The truth is that not all people can handle the fog. In Exodus 20:18 we read, “The people remained at a distance, while Moses approached the thick cloud where God was.”
Why would regular Israelites not approach the cloud? The Chassidic teachings of Rav Nachman of Breslov offer an insight. Paraphrasing Likutei Moharan 115:1, Rav Nachman insists that not everyone is worthy or capable of discerning God’s justice and judgment. While God desires all people to come close to Godself, God creates obstacles which are tests for people to find Godself in the obstacles! The obstacle here is the fog, succinctly put, “Specifically through the obstacles themselves one is able to draw close to the Holy One, for God is hidden there.”
Thus, this cloud of God doesn’t qualify Moses for leadership. It merely gives him an opportunity to lead. It doesn’t define his courage. Rather, it reveals it, giving him an opportunity to demonstrate how to cleave to God amidst an earth shattering revelation, amidst the confusion of the fog of war. It comes to teach us that when the fog of war is the greatest, when the confusion is sown so deep, when division and discord seems like the only abundant truth, the power of God to unify is most potent. In the story of The Exodus, for those who had the strength to believe, they could see the cloud of God leading them onwards in their sojourn through the desert. Yet for those who had no faith, the very same cloud of darkness sent the Egyptian army into chaotic confusion at the Rea of Reeds, tossing horse and rider into the ocean.
We all want to know exactly what to do in moments of confusion. We want structure and calm. We want purpose and clarity. But that’s not the way life works. The cloud of God and the “fog of war” can present itself to be two sides of the same coin. Depending on the purity of the leadership, it can be a cacophonous noise, reducing us to fear and discombobulating us, or it can be an opportunity to live by higher principles, to see with our metaphorical third eye, and to hold the light of faith amidst bleak darkness. This is not something that can be intellectualized or thought-out. the path through the fog must be felt via intuition to be traversed.
When it comes to intuiting our way through fogginess, I am reminded of Rudyard Kipling's poem “If,” written as a message from a father to a son.
If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,
And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise:
If you can dream—and not make dreams your master;
If you can think—and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same;
If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
And stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools:
If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breathe a word about your loss;
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: ‘Hold on!’
If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with Kings—nor lose the common touch,
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
If all men count with you, but none too much;
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son!
We may be shrouded in the fog of war. It may not be a war like years before - fought with armaments and weapons of mass destruction. It may not yet have clear articulated sides, but the landscape of our technology has so many angles that we seem to be encroaching on some sort of battle. “Where is God?” you still ask. My response is, “Why not walk into the darkening clouds to find out?”
I’ll be right there with you.