Good question. Is it permissible to imagine G-d in our minds while praying, and what about the pillars of cloud and fire? Did G-d reside in these pillars during the Exodus?
Exodus 13:21-22 states:
The L-rd led before them during the day with a pillar of cloud, to
lead them along the way, and during the night with a pillar of fire,
to give light to them to travel during the day and during the night.
The pillar of cloud during the day and also the pillar of cloud by
night did not depart from the people.
How should we understand this passage? Does God have a human form?
Regarding the cloud, there are three possibilities. We will show how none of them are correct, offering a fourth approach.
- G-d is not the cloud since G-d has no body and is one.
- The cloud cannot represent G-d as this would imply that the cloud is a separate entity.
- G-d cannot be obscured in one place since G-d is everywhere.
Anthropomorphisms and Anthropopathisms
French Jewish Bible commentator Rashi (Rabbi Solomon Yitzchaqi) disagreed. He felt that G-d was corporeal. For example, some have claimed that G-d needed to descend to investigate a matter, quoting scripture:
G-d came down to see the city and the tower that the people built [the
Tower of Babel].
Onkelos (chapter 18,) rejects the anthropomorphic “I will go down," substituting a paraphrase: “I will reveal Myself.”
The translator felt that G-d was not traveling down, instead, He was “revealing,” letting it be known that He knows the evil that has been committed. In his Guide of the Perplexed 1:10, Maimonides also explains that “go down” and “go up” is a metaphor for divine communication taking place (down) and ceasing (up).
In his Commentary on the Mishnah, he writes,
“They do this simply due to their ignorance [boorishness] in
philosophy, and distance from the sciences. They lack sufficient
[intellectual] perfection to awaken themselves...this miserable group,
mercy upon their ignorance... destroy the grandeur of the Torah....
Many [rabbis] preach publically matters they do not understand
themselves. If only they would keep quiet.”
An image of G-d in the mind
Rambam writes that we are incapable of knowing anything about G-d except for what G-d is not. Rabbi Ishmael felt that the Torah, “speaks in the language people use,”) which is to say, that G-d does not really speak, get angry, regret, have emotions, or walks. G-d's anger in the Bible should not be understood literally, for G-d does not react emotionally to situations, as humans do. These depictions are figurative. Similarly, we should not picture G-d talking, walking, or listening to our prayers in our minds as that is akin to idolatry. People should act intelligently and philosophically, as shown in the Bible.
Genesis 1:26 states,
“Let us make man in our demut." Verse 1:27 relates that “G-d made man
in His tzelem, in the tzelem of G-d, He made him.”
It appears that people are made in the image of G-d. Does this verse imply that G-d is a human, only bigger? Actually, it cannot mean “likeness" since G-d has no body and is one. Onkelos renders 2:7's “a living being,” to ruach m’mal’la, “one with the power of speech,” a characteristic of man's intelligence. Maimonides equates intelligence as tzelem, people should act intelligently because that is like G-d.
Now that it is clear that G-d does not have a form, nor can we imagine G-d in our minds since this would be improper, we can attempt to explain the pillar(s) of clouds.
The pillar of cloud and the pillar of fire
There are many miracles associated with the Exodus story, one of which being the pillar of cloud and pillar of fire.
Exodus 14:24 states, "the L-rd looked upon the camp of the Egyptians from the pillar of fire and the cloud,” preventing the Egyptians from entering the Sea of Reeds, and attacking the Israelite camp, waiting to cross. Again Onkelos translates Exodus 16:10 as “the glory of the Lord appeared (Onkelos: was revealed) in the cloud.”
In Deuteronomy 1:31-33, Moses recalls the pillar of cloud and fire, saying,
And in the wilderness, where you saw how the L-rd your G-d carried
you, as a man carries his son, all the way you traveled until you came
to this place. Yet in this thing you have no trustin the memra (word
or wisdom) of the L-rd your G-d, who goes before you on the way, to
prepare for you a place, a lodging to rest, with a pillar of fire by
night to see the way you are to follow and a pillar of cloud by day.
Exodus 40:34-38, records:
Then the cloud covered the Tent of Meeting, and the glory of the
L-rd filled the Tabernacle. Moses was unable to enter the Tent of
Meeting because the cloud had settled upon it, and the glory of the
L-rd filled the Tabernacle. When the cloud lifted from the Tabernacle,
the Israelites would set out on their various journeys. But if the
cloud did not lift, they would not set out until it did lift. For the
cloud of the L-rd (Onkelos: the cloud of glory of the L-rd) was upon
the Tabernacle by day, “v’aish tihyeh lailah bo,”(literally) and
there was fire therein by night (Onkelos: and the appearance of fire
would be upon it by night), before the eyes of the entire house of
Israel, throughout all their journeys.
The targumist inserts “an appearance of,” (borrowed from Numbers 9:16,) as to avoid a real fire that might burn or ignite the Tabernacle. We see this again in verse 24:17, “Then the glory of the L-rd appeared in the sight of the Israelites as a consuming fire on the top of the Mountain.”
The targumist softens the anthropomorphic depictions of G-d. The traveling “by the mouth of G-d” is changed to memra (word or wisdom) which represents the pillar by day and by night. According to Onkelos, G-d is not manifested [hiddin or obsercured] within the cloud, instead, it is “the glory of G-d revealed.” Targum Onkelos also demonstrates that during the night the pillar of fire was only an “appearance," not a real fire burning on the Tabernacle, G-d forbid. However, this explanation leaves us with several questions.
Is it problematical to suggest that G-d created a miraculous fire that would not ignite the flammable curtains? Since G-d created the laws of nature, is it unreasonable to say that He can suspend them if He so desires? Why couldn't our targumist simply say it was a miracle? Or, is it possible that the biblical pillars of cloud and fire that led the Israelites through the wilderness are a metaphor for G-d's guidance. There are some who think the pillar of cloud and fire is probably a metaphor saying the Israelites knew where they were heading. Is it possible to recognize G-d’s pillars (metaphorically,) leading us today or does the business of the modern world prevents us from doing that?
 Commentary to Sanhedrin 10:1