Parshat Behaalotcha (Numbers 8:1-12:16)
After spending nearly a year at Mount Sinai, the People of Israel sets out toward to the Land of Israel, busying themselves with last-minute preparations for the arduous journey. Hashem calls Moshe, and says to him: “Make yourself two silver trumpets; you shall make them (from a) beaten (form); they shall be used by you to summon the congregation and to announce the departure of the camps” [Num. 10:2].
In those days, long before the invention of the loudspeaker, an effective language needed to be developed to assemble the people before setting out on their way, or when the time came to set up camp – the language of trumpets. The Torah specifies how these trumpets were to be used, and what the various sounds mean: the signal for the front of the camp to begin moving, the signal for the rear of the camp to halt, etc.
But the trumpets were only effective while the nation was in the desert, and gathered in a relatively enclosed space. This was a temporary mitzvah, since it follows that once the people reach the Land of Israel and disperse within it, and once each person settles in the area designated for his tribe and inheritance, the trumpets would become useless.
The Torah, however, mentions two other purposes for the trumpets. The first is a military use:
“If you go to war in your land against an adversary that oppresses you, you shall blow a teruah with the trumpets and be remembered before the Lord your God, and thus be saved from your enemies” [ibid, v. 9 ].
We might have understood that the trumpet was used to assemble the nation, or that it could be used as a rallying cry for battle (similarly to the way a public address system is used in a basketball game). But the Torah emphasizes that the trumpet has an entirely different role: “and [you will] be remembered before the Lord your God”.
Does Hashem need a trumpet to be reminded of us? Would it not have been better to just pray or perform a good deed to be remembered? How did blowing the trumpet encourage Hashem to remember us favorably?
In the next verse, the Torah tells us that the trumpet must be sounded on the festivals as well: “On the days of your rejoicing, on your festivals and on your new-moon celebrations, you shall blow on the trumpets for your ascent-offerings and your peace sacrifices, and it shall be a remembrance before your God” [ibid., v. 11].
Once more, the trumpet is linked to remembrance. What does the trumpet remind Hashem about us, that we don’t know already? Many have offered answers to this question. Some, like Rabbi Avraham Ibn Ezra, 12th-century sage from Spain, suggested that remembrance occurs when we adhere to Hashem’s commandments and create the trumpet. However, if this is the case, what sets the trumpet apart from any other mitzvah?
Other sages posited that the sounds made by the trumpet express a pure crying out (akin to the shofar blown on Rosh Hashana), thereby humble a person before his Creator. However, even if we were to accept this argument, it would have been better to simply use a shofar.
These hypotheses may or may not explain the use the trumpet in war, but we still need to understand why the trumpet was used in the Beit Hamikdash, and why it was used for happy occasions and festivals. There must also be some kind of link between these two events and the use of the trumpet in the desert.
I feel that the Torah is hinting at an important principle in social leadership, which is easy understand, yet difficult to implement. When a great nation sets out on a journey, each individual understands that if the camp is in disarray, and if there aren’t any clear-cut rules on how the camp is to march, who is to be at the head and who in the rear, when to depart and when to stop, disarray will ensue, and nothing will be done properly.
Anyone who has led a tour group of 500 travelers is surely aware of the complex logistics involved, even if we have cell phones and laptops. Now imagine one million people, camped out in the desert, who need to meander through the desert, with no electronic equipment whatsoever. Obviously, this is almost “mission impossible”.
The trumpet is the one tool that can surmount these obstacles. When it is sounded, everyone gets their instructions and knows what they must do. It is critical to ensure that the entire group acts in unison to avoid a maelstrom of people that few could control, one that could end in tragedy.
When the nation was in the desert, it is safe to assume that everyone understood this, even if there were those who were not too happy to comply – particularly the individualists who found it difficult to function in large groups. The moment they crossed the Jordan River, they breathed a sigh of relief, as if to say “It’s over! Boot camp is finished! No more trumpets, and no one to bother us! We can all do whatever we want! After all, isn’t that why we came to this land, so that each person could live in their home sweet home?”
But that is where they were mistaken. Our enemies always sleep with one eye open, and they can discern such weaknesses. They will try to find the chinks in our national resolve, and when we are forced to go to war, some will say that things can be done in other ways, or that we should have conceded here or there, while others might blame the nation’s misfortune on the fact that the enemy hadn’t been utterly obliterated in a recent battle.
Everyone will find some kind of excuse to break away from the Jewish collective and evade the responsibilities we should be embracing at such a critical juncture. People will take a list of grievances into battle, unless we have the trumpet. For when we sound it, we remind ourselves and our Creator that despite our many divisions, we are still the same nation that traveled through the desert – one united nation, even if it is made up of different tribes, and even if many opinions set us apart.
During our festivals, when we stand before Hashem, and when we each pray according to different traditions and styles, some might come to doubt that this is indeed the nation that left Egypt. After all – these people are so diverse, they look so different from each other, they’re even dressed differently.
The blowing of the trumpet reminds us all that despite the external appearances that create barriers between us, we have remained one nation marching toward a common goal. This memory will also appear before Hashem, and then, He will surely remember us favorably.