Parshat Behalotcha: From terror to triumph

The Covenant at Sinai inspired our nation with a singular purpose - to promulgate a system of universal morality and ethics.

shofar blowing 88 (photo credit: )
shofar blowing 88
(photo credit: )
Our biblical portion this week uses two words to describe the gathering of Israelites and two words to describe the sounds their trumpets are to make: the trumpets shall summon the "camps" (mahanot) as well as the "community" (eda, literally the group bearing witness) of Israel, and in time of war they shall sound the broken, weeping t'rua, whereas in times of festival they shall sound the firm, exultant t'kiya. My revered teacher Rav J.B. Soloveitchik defined each form of assemblage: the encampment of Israel involved herding together as a form of protection against enemies and difficult conditions, (mahaneh is biblically used for protective army encampment, as in Genesis 32:8,9); the eda or witness community of Israel suggests a united purpose, a mission to the world. Similarly my rebbe distinguished between the t'rua, which signals fear; and the t'kiya a firm, exultant sound reflecting victory. These different terms - and realities of national existence - hark back to two covenants which formed us: The Covenant between the Pieces and The Covenant at Sinai. The Covenant between the Pieces (Genesis 15) established Israel's nationhood. It guarantees Abraham progeny and delineates the boundaries of the homeland his descendants would inherit. It comes following a war, contains an element of great fear (15:12), foretells a period of affliction in a foreign land, but guarantees eternal survival and eventual occupation of the Promised Land. This is what Rav Soloveitchik calls the covenant of fate. After all, an individual neither chooses the family or nation-state into which he/she is born nor the persecution he/she may be singled out to suffer. Familial solidarity and the haven of secure boundaries will enable us to survive despite the challenges and obstacles. The Covenant at Sinai (Exodus 19, 20) inspired our nation with a singular purpose - to promulgate a system of universal morality and ethics. To this end we were given 613 commandments, enabling us to become a holy nation and a teacher of morality and peace. This second covenant was not inflicted on us; indeed, it's only after we volunteered to internalize the laws that the Almighty agreed to enter into such a relationship (Exodus 24:7, 8). The first covenant was our covenant of fate, the formation of the encampment of Jacob, the fearful, trembling sounds of the t'rua which encourages us to seek refuge in the solidarity of a family/nation/state united against inimical forces. The second covenant was our covenant of destiny, the recruitment of Israel as God's witnesses, the exultant t'kiya which expresses the resolve of a people imbued with a divine mission, united in order to perfect the world. From this perspective, we can well understand the initial description of the Rosh Hashana shofar blowing as "a day of the broken, weeping sound" (Yom t'rua yiheyeh lachem - Numbers 29:1), since Rosh Hashana - the anniversary of the creation of the world - brought us into a not-yet-redeemed world, replete with suffering. But on Rosh Hashana we add the exultant t'kiya sound from the redemption of the Jubilee Year, when everyone is free and secure in his/her homestead, and which serves as a metaphor for world salvation (Leviticus 25: 8-10). The very word "shofar" means beautiful and complete; the victorious t'kiya sound comes to remind us that by our repentance we have the ability to change this vale of tears, to perfect the world under the kingship of the divine. Rav Soloveitchik maintains that especially in national terms, our greatest challenge is to transform fate into destiny, our persecuted encampment into a nation of God's witnesses dedicated to redeeming the world with love and peace. And in our creation of the State of Israel from the ashes of Auschwitz, we demonstrated our ability to sublimate enslavement into a firm resolve to reestablish ourselves as a free nation founded on democratic principles and dedicated to rooting out terrorism everywhere. As it is nationally, so is it personally. Every individual is born to a certain set of parents in a certain place at a certain time, and is subject to certain genetic limitations; all these factors comprise the individual's fate. To turn fate into destiny, to take lemons and make lemonade, is the greatest challenge of anyone's life. Whenever I feel stymied or dismayed by the "un-luck of the draw," I think of Rav Moshe Ebstein, who responded to having borne deaf children by establishing an international Yeshiva for the Deaf, the first of its kind, and of teenage Dassie Rabinovitch, who responded to her fatal cancer by giving lectures to high-school students on how her illness made her appreciate each moment, and how her chemotherapy brought her closer to God. Instead of cursing the darkness we must concentrate on making light. The writer is the founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone Colleges and Graduate Programs, and chief rabbi of Efrat.