The final verse of Parashat Pekudei tells that after God took residence, as it were, in the Mishkan, His presence was displayed in the form of a cloud that hovered over the Mishkan by day, and a pillar of fire that stood over the Mishkan at night. Many darshanim have sought to uncover the symbolic meaning and significance of the cloud and fire that represented the Divine Presence in the Mishkan.
Rav Chaim Aryeh Leib Panster, in his Sha’ar Bat Rabim, explains (citing the work Yitev Leiv) that these manifestations of the Shekhina reflect the private nature of spiritual expression. The pillar of fire, he explained, burned even during the daytime, but it was concealed by the thick cloud. The daytime in this instance symbolizes our public image, the way we conduct ourselves out in the open, among our peers. In public, the “fire” of religious fervor and passion is best kept “concealed,” rather than broadcast and put on display. We should not be looking for opportunities to show our “fire,” our spiritual yearnings, in public. The “fire” should be unveiled specifically at “night,” in private, within ourselves. Of course, we are to conduct ourselves appropriately in public and not act in a manner that raises suspicions about our religious commitment. However, the “fire” of spiritual drive should be mostly concealed and out of the public view.
As the Sha’ar Bat Rabim notes, the exception to this rule is Jewish leaders, who bear the obligation of leading primarily through the example of piety that they set. Their religious fervor must indeed be put on display in order to present a model for others to emulate. And thus when Moshe turned to God before his death to ask that He appoint a successor, he asked that He appoint a leader “who will go out before them and come before them” (Bamidbar 27:17), which may be understood as a reference to a public persona, the example the leader would have to set through his public display of piety. In response, God instructed Moshe to appoint Yehoshua, “ish asher ru’ach bo” – “a man within whom is the spirit [of God].” Specifically because the leader must present a public image of piety, it is imperative that he has “ru’ach bo,” that internally he is sincerely committed and devoted to the ideals which he outwardly represents. When a person is expected to put his “pillar of fire” on display, and publicly exhibit a model of piety, it is especially important for him to ensure that this “fire” also burns within him, internally, and that his public image is an accurate reflection of who he is really is.