In Parashat Beha’alotcha, we read about an instruction given to Moses to prepare trumpets to serve the Temple and the people. In the Temple, the trumpets were used during the sacrifices on holidays and festivals, and the trumpets were used by the nation during the desert journey, when the people would be called to the Tabernacle to hear Moses’s words or when the Israelites would journey from one encampment to another.
And they would be needed also for the future – when the people will be in their own land and go to war against an enemy. In all these cases, it was commanded to blow the trumpets.
This commandment seems at first glance to be quite marginal. Why is it necessary to give an order on how to call the people or how to go to war? This can be done in different ways based on the situation and time. What is special about the trumpets that the nation was commanded to use them in these situations?
Why does the Torah give instructions about how to call people or go to war?
Sefer Hachinuch is a book that was compiled in Spain in the 13th century, and the name of its author is not known with certainty. This book lists all the commandments in the Torah with the main laws that pertain to them, along with the reasons for the commandments, which were usually written according to the philosophy of Maimonides and Nahmanides. It became one of the foundational Jewish books from the Middle Ages. Let us consider the words of this book in the context of the commandments of the trumpets:
“...since at the time of the sacrifice they would need to properly focus their attention... and also [that] the sacrifice requires complete awareness in front of the Master of all Who commanded about them; and also at the time of trouble, a person needs great focus in his supplication before his Creator, that He should have mercy upon him and save him from his trouble, we are therefore commanded to blow the trumpets at these times.
“As since man is physical, he requires great arousal to these things. For the way of nature is to stand asleep... And there is also another purpose, aside from awakening to focusing attention, which is realized through the sound of the trumpet, and that is that the sound of the trumpets removes all other worldly concerns from the heart of the listener, such that at that time he will only [direct] his heart to the matter of the sacrifice... This is well known to anyone who has ever bent his ear to hear, with focus, the trumpets or the sound of a shofar” (Sefer Hachinuch, Commandment 484).
The purpose of the trumpets, according to the author of Sefer Hachinuch, is to make a person focus on what he is doing – on offering sacrifice or praying to God in times of trouble. These actions are important enough for the Torah to specify how a person should direct the mind and focus on what lies ahead.
Man has a tendency to lose focus. We do important things, but we don’t pay attention to them. It can be when we are fulfilling some mitzvah – prayer or some other commandment – and we find ourselves moving our lips as our thoughts wander into other realms. It can also be when we relate to others but are not focused on them. A good example of this would be a parent who is taking care of his young child but is busy on the cellphone while doing so. Is this example too extreme? It seems to be extremely commonplace.
When we do something without focusing on it, we lose twice. Usually, the act we’re doing will be done imperfectly. If it is a prayer, we will find ourselves accidentally skipping passages when we are not focused, and in the second example we cited – caring for the child – the child can feel whether the parent is interested in him or in other things.
But there is another loss in this: The things we do well build our personality. Every mitzvah, every good deed, every attitude toward others shape us as a more complete personality. When we do an act with a scattered brain, the power of the act wears off and is not meaningful to us.
When we look at young children, we can see them playing with full concentration. No wonder. After all, children aren’t worried about tomorrow or what happened yesterday, they don’t have a mortgage to pay or a complicated relationship with their boss at work and, as American writer Fulton Oursler wrote, “Thoughts constantly shift between regret for yesterday and fear of tomorrow.”
This is the challenge we face as adults – to be able to focus on the right action, with intent and concentration, and thus do it in the best possible way and derive the maximum benefit from it.■
The writer is rabbi of the Western Wall and Holy Sites.