Elijah's Cave Revisited - March 2010

In Parsha Ki Tissa we read of a religious liturgy which took place in the period between the destruction of the golden calf and the erection of the Sanctuary. It would seem from Exodus 33:7 that Moses had set up a special “Tent of Meeting” outside the camp specifically for his private contemplative prayer. (The community was in a state of defilement after the calf incident and this seems to be the reason for the tent’s extra-mural location). This tent was guarded by Joshua who seems to have been in full-time retreat there (Ex.33:11) and so it may have had a wider cultic usage. It certainly provides a good contemplative model.

We read of the “liturgy” I refer to in Ex.33:8-11:

As Moses leaves the community to speak with God in the Tent, he is respectfully observed by all the Israelites who are positioned, each one, at the door of their own tent. When Moses enters the Tent of Meeting, the Pillar of Cloud descends and takes up a position at the door of the Tent of Meeting. At this point the community prostrates in worship while facing the Pillar of Cloud-each at the door of his own tent.

The significance of the threshold, (the doorway of a tent or the mouth of a cave) is something which links this “liturgy” with the Theophany to Moses in the cleft of the rock, the Theophany to Elijah at the mouth of the cave, and to the Temple ceremonies of Yom Kippur.

The interior of the Tent of Meeting may be said to represent the “realm” of God Himself.
The Pillar of Cloud may be said to represent the Shekinah, God’s Presence as we encounter it.

This encounter takes place for us at the point represented by “the door of the Tent of Meeting.” The door of “our own tent”, our own interior centre of prayer, is in some way at exactly that same point when we worship.

Moses is said to have spoken with God “Face to face” inside the Tent.
Each of us is encouraged by the possibility of such Human/Divine contact and that is symbolised by the way the ordinary Israelite “faced” the Tent of Meeting and followed Moses’ movements.

When we pray as Jewish Contemplatives, we have located ourselves at the threshold of the Tent of Meeting by having oriented ourselves in that same “direction”. We are, as it were, standing at the “point” inside the Pillar of Cloud which is the “M’arat Ha-Lev, the Cave of the Heart.

We are standing at the threshold of that “cave” looking IN.

When you imagine Elijah standing at the mouth of the cave listening to the still small voice, do you imagine him standing there facing a dramatically expansive landscape while shielding his face from the Divine Presence somehow suspended in space in front of him? Until very recently, I certainly did.

During hegyon-ha-lev (spiritual reading) last week I was reflecting on the text of I Kings 19:12 when a new perspective suddenly occurred to me. The text in question is a familiar and especially significant one on this website:
 “And after the fire, there came a still small voice. And when Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out, and stood at the mouth of the cave.”
 I really like the tradition that Moses’ “cleft in the rock” and Elijah’s “cave” were one and the same. Probably because of that, I had always visualized both Moses and Elijah looking outwards. This is perhaps the intention of the text of Ki Tissa in which Moses is permitted to “see” the “back” of God and sense God’s Presence- But suddenly last week I saw an Elijah who was standing at the cave’s threshold - but looking back into the cave, rather like someone standing in prayer before a mihrab niche.

The Torah reading of Pekudei and its accompanying Haftarah are concerned with the dedication of the Sanctuary and Elijah features in neither. Yet I was surprised again to find that the verse which popped out at me led me to notice a rather interesting relationship between the revelation of the Shekinah in the Mishkan and in the Jerusalem Temple with the experience of Elijah in the cave. It wasn’t so much a mihrab I’d seen, it was more like the apparently empty chamber of the Holy of Holies.

The Torah reading of Parsha Pekudei describes a special moment in the dedication of the Mishkan (the Desert Sanctuary) at Exodus 40:33-35:
 “So Moses finished the work. Then the cloud covered the tent of meeting and the Glory of the Lord filled the tent. And Moses was not able to enter into the tent of meeting, because the Cloud abode thereon, and the Glory of the Lord filled the tent.”

In the Haftarah reading attached to Parshah Pekudei, I noticed a parallel set of circumstances. Here in I Kings 8:10 we are reading of the dedication of Solomon’s Temple:
 “And it came to pass, when the priests had come out of the Holy Place,that the Cloud filled the House of the Lord, so that the priests could not stand to minister by reason of the Cloud: for the Glory of the Lord filled the House of the Lord.”
 The Cloud (Anan) and the Glory (K’vod) are terms relating to the Presence of God. I will refer to both using the term “The Presence” for a moment as I try to demonstrate how my thoughts went.

At the start of each narrative:-

Moses and his team had just completed the construction and ritual dedication ceremonies of the Mishkan. Solomon’s team had just completed the construction and dedication of the Jerusalem Temple. Elijah had been seeking God desperately in the activity of earthquake, wind and fire but had neither found God nor made God a dwelling place.


The Presence descends upon the Mishkan in the form of a cloud and totally fills it; The Presence descends upon the Temple of Solomon in the form of a cloud and totally fills it; Then The Presence fills the cave (or Elijah’s mind) in the form of a Voice.

Reactions in each narrative are similar:- 

Moses cannot enter the Tent any more as the The Presence is overpowering; Solomon’s priests cannot remain in the Temple Sanctuary as The Presence is overpowering; Elijah cannot bear the power of The Presence inside the cave and he does two things, he covers his face and he gets out of the cave fast.

In each of these three narratives, the main “characters” are now standing at the threshold of the “Place where the Presence is”. In all three cases they are facing the Presence but unable to be “in it”. Yet being at the threshold they are susceptible to its (so to speak) “radiation” outwards, so in some sense they are in an intimate relationship with it.

 Immediately after the quoted verse, Solomon says: “The Lord has said he would dwell in the thick darkness” (I Kings 8:12). The priests of Solomon’s Temple see nothing but an impenetrable cloud (arafel). Moses has already “seen” more than any before or since, yet even he is aware that the particular extended revelation he (and all Israel) is experiencing is beyond his power to bear at close proximity.
And Elijah?
He has “seen” nothing, yet he covers his face with his mantle. The Presence is heard. But we know the tradition that the revelation at Sinai was a synaesthesic experience and that the blending of seeing/hearing/feeling/comprehending is what “the Cloud” does to us. Elijah is thus covering his eyes because he is “seeing the sound” of The Presence.
Elijah had been watching earthquake, wind, and fire pass by the mouth of the cave and their (or perhaps his own) ferocious activity had been, as it were, devoid of The Presence. Perhaps Elijah was not looking outwards from the Cave to face The Presence as I had always imagined after all.

Perhaps the Voice spoke from behind/inside him in the cave, as it were: In the place of his current searching not in his past or his future. Perhaps when we stand at the mouth of the cave which is the m’arat ha-lev we appear to have turned our back to the world, but that is only appearance. Priests and levites face the sanctuary but that is not to say they are “turning their backs” on society. They are facing the ark because their entire focus is on God. In maintaining this focus they simultaneously bear the needs and the prayer intentions of the nation on their shoulders in an attempt to offer a prayer of atonement and healing.

 In a very special sense, Elijah is the “father” of all Dedicated Jewish Contemplatives. We are, as it were, the “Descendants of Elijah the childless”. I would suggest that what he realised too late in the cave (see the earlier article “In the Cave of Elijah) is a task we develop and perhaps even embody ourselves today. As children of Elijah, we cover our eyes with Elijah’s mantle. You can take that literally and regard yourself as one who hopes to receive a portion of his contemplative spirit as did Elisha. Or you can take it mystically as meaning that you demonstrate or declare the same awe when you stand before God. You can take it practically and imitate both his gesture and his intention when you pray in your tallit. We know that we are facing the “right direction” for us. Beneath that mantle with our eyes closed we stand in prayer “facing” The Presence. Though our perception of The Presence is always filtered by an almost impenetrable cloud, we can hope to see God’s Voice.

Jewish Contemplatives may appear to be facing away from other people, but in the very next moment our inner vision can turn as we begin to see through God’s eyes, back into “the world”. At this point spatial or geographical direction is actually irrelevant: As we are at the threshold of the Mishkan, the threshold of the Temple, the threshold of the Cave: we are enveloped in the outpouring radiance of the Shekinah and we ourselves can become a point of its entry into the world. Perhaps that is the deepest lesson of Elijah’s cave.

This article was first published in March 2009  
on the Community of Jewish Contemplatives website.