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Parshat Beha’alotcha: Blow Your Horn

Excerpted from Rabbi Shmuel Goldin’s Unlocking the Torah Text – Bamidbar, co-published by OU Press and Gefen Publishers

Unlocking the Torah Text - BamidbarBlow Your Horn


Finally, the nation stands poised to leave Sinai and begin its historic journey. One final set of divine directives, however, must yet be given.

God turns to Moshe and states: “Make for yourself two chatzotzrot kesef, trumpets of silver; of beaten work shall you make them; and they shall be for you for the summoning of the assembly and to cause the camps to journey.”

Sounded by the priests, these silver trumpets will be used to herald a journey, gather the nation, strengthen the people in the face of challenge and mark the commemoration of festivals and celebrations.

Based upon the specific language “Make for yourself,” the rabbis discern a striking distinction between the trumpets and all other utensils fashioned by Moshe in the wilderness. While other utensils were appropriate for use in future generations, Moshe’s trumpets were his alone, to be used only during his lifetime. Each future generation would have to fashion its trumpets anew.

One can’t help but be a bit disappointed by the final laws given at Sinai….

Firstly, why do the trumpets merit mention in the Torah text at all?

The Altar, the Menora, the Table and other similar utensils described in the text are clearly unique, sanctified objects to be used in conjunction with the worship of God in the Sanctuary. Their inclusion in the Torah is certainly understandable.

The trumpets, however, seem to be primarily utilitarian in nature: “And they shall be for you for the summoning of the assembly and to cause the camps to journey.” Other practical tools must have been fashioned by the Israelites over the course of their wilderness journeys. Why are only the trumpets mentioned?

Secondly, the chatzotzrot occupy a powerfully pivotal place in the text. The laws concerning their creation and use represent the last directives given by God before the Jewish national journey begins. One would expect the final edicts transmitted at Sinai to be particularly significant, culminating commandments, designed to set the nation on its way. Even if the instructions concerning the chatzotzrot do belong in the text, why are they placed here? Couldn’t God have found a more significant mitzva with which to launch our nation’s journey?

Finally, why are the chatzotzrot generation-specific? Why are we not permitted to pass them down, like all other sacred utensils, from one generation to the next?

A close reading of the text reveals that there is much more to the function of the chatzotzrot than first meets the eye. While the initially recorded use of the trumpets does seem utilitarian, their later recorded role is much more complex:

And when you go to wage war in your land against the adversary that oppresses you, then you shall sound an alarm with the trumpets, and you shall be recalled before the Lord, your God, and you shall be saved from your foes.
And on the day of your gladness, and on your festivals, and on your new moons, you shall sound the trumpets over your burnt offerings and over your feast peace offerings; and they shall be a remembrance for you before your God; I am the Lord, your God.

The sounding of the trumpets described in these passages is far from ordinary. Here, the chatzotzrot are apparently used to communicate with God, their sounding a form of wordless prayer, designed to pierce the heavens.

As our understanding of the role of the chatzotzrot expands, a fascinating pattern begins to emerge.

The Torah identifies two distinct sounds created by the chatzotzrot:
1. The tekia: A long, unbroken sounding of the trumpet; associated in the text with congregational assembly, leadership assembly and communal celebration.
2. The terua: A broken sounding of the trumpet; associated with a call to travel and the advent of war.

Apparently, even the initially mentioned usage of the trumpets is not solely utilitarian. The sounds of the chatzotzrot consistently mirror the mindset of the people at the moment of their sounding. Times of comfort and stability – such as occasions of assembly and celebration – are marked by a tekia, an unbroken sound of certainty. Times of uncertainty, challenge and distress, on the other hand – such as occasions of journey and war – are associated primarily with the terua, a broken, uncertain sound.

The concept of connection between ritually created sounds and the mindset of those sounding and hearing them finds further support from another, more familiar halachic source, recognizable to most Jews.

The broken and unbroken blasts created by the chatzotzrot are the same sounds created by the blowing of the shofar on the yearly “Day of Judgment,” the festival of Rosh Hashana, the “head” of the Jewish year. In Temple times, in fact, the sounding of the shofar was actually accompanied by the simultaneous sounding of the trumpets.

While both the tekia and the terua are sounded on Rosh Hashana, however, only the latter is clearly connected to the festival in the Torah text. So central, in fact, is the association between the broken sound of the shofar and Rosh Hashanah that the Torah refers to this holy day as Yom Terua, a day of terua, and Zichron Terua, a remembrance of terua. The message is clear. The aura of Rosh Hashana, the yearly Day of Judgment, is captured by the terua, the broken, uncertain sound of the shofar.

The deep bond between Rosh Hashana and the terua sound underlies the rabbinic attempt in the Talmud to define the actual nature of this broken blast. Tellingly, the rabbis identify the terua either as a series of nine short, staccato blasts, symbolizing an individual in the act of sobbing, or as a series of three somewhat longer sounds (a series known to us as a shevarim), symbolizing an individual in the act of sighing. According to both positions, the broken sound of the shofar dramatically depicts the image of a “broken” individual, standing in spiritual and emotional distress before the Heavenly Court.

Just as the notes of the chatzotzrot mirror the internal state of the Israelites at the time of the trumpets’ sounding, so, too, the blasts of the shofar reflect the internal turmoil of each individual standing on Rosh Hashana, in judgment before God.

The message emerging from this imagery, however, strikes even deeper. Once we thematically connect the trumpet and shofar blasts, further consideration of the sounding of the shofar on Rosh Hashana can help us better understand the role of the chatzotzrot. The blasts of the shofar, after all, are not meant to simply mirror the internal struggle of an individual standing in judgment before God. These sounds are instead designed to awaken, cultivate and develop that very struggle.

The halachic verdict in a fascinating rabbinic debate mirrors this understanding of the mitzva. Some authorities maintain that the blessing to be recited before the sounding of the shofar should read, “Blessed art Thou, Lord our God, Who has sanctified us with His commandments and commanded us to sound the shofar.”

The Rambam and others, however, argue for the text “Blessed art Thou, Lord our God, Who has sanctified us with His commandments and commanded us to hear the sound of the shofar.” Furthermore, the Rambam explicitly and repeatedly states that the mitzva is to “hear the sound of the shofar.”

In practice, the Rambam’s position is adopted as law and the blessing is universally pronounced “to hear the sound of the shofar.”

Numerous authorities amplify this halachic decision. Clearly, they maintain, the shofar blasts are not only a form of wordless prayer directed to the Almighty, but also sounds that we direct to ourselves.

The Rambam himself proclaims: “Although the sounding of the shofar on Rosh Hashana is an unexplained edict of the text, a lesson is embedded within it: ‘Awaken slumberers from your sleep…examine your ways…return to and remember your Creator…. Look into your souls, examine your ways and actions, and let each one of you abandon his evil path.’ ”

Set at the beginning of the year, as our personal journeys begin again, the sounding of the shofar is designed to arouse the one element essential to all religious striving: our own human spirit, our heart and our soul. That awakening accomplished, the shofar sounds then reflect our spirit back to God in wordless, heartfelt prayer.

Here, then, is the key to the mitzva of the chatzotzrot. Like the shofar sounds, the blasts of the trumpets are designed to awaken and to reflect the one final component essential to the success of the Jewish journey: the indomitable human spirit lying in the heart of each Israelite.

As the people prepare to depart Sinai, God turns to Moshe and says: I have given you all that I can. The laws, the symbols, the rituals and the legal process are all in place. Now, however, you must add the one ingredient that I cannot; the one essential element that must come from each of you, of your own free will.

Create for yourself chatzotzrot…sound them again and again…and let those trumpets awaken your spirit, in times of certainty or doubt, in times of celebration or conflict. Meet each of these vastly different circumstances with the same inner strength and devotion. Above all, remember that all that I have given you will be meaningless without the investment of your spirit and your soul….

And if you are successful, then the notes of those trumpets will themselves be transformed into wordless prayer, piercing the vaults of the heavens and reaching My Heavenly Throne. For those sounds will represent your spirit and soul as no words can.

There could be no more appropriate mitzva with which to leave Sinai than the mitzva of the chatzotzrot: trumpets designed to awaken the spirit of the Israelites as their historic journey begins; trumpets that will be forged anew, over and over again, as each generation rouses its own unique spirit to meet the challenges of the day.

Points to Ponder

Two areas of consideration can be suggested as we consider the mitzvot of the shofar and the chatzotzrot.

I. Chatzotzrot: Awakening
I recently attended a rabbinic meeting called to consider the national agenda of the American Orthodox Jewish community. The question posed to us, a small group of rabbis gathered from across the United States, seemed straightforward enough: “Out of the multitude of possible religious, social, communal and national concerns facing the Jewish people today, what are the principal issues that we should be addressing most directly? What are our priorities, our burning concerns?”

It didn’t take long at all, however, for the discussion to take an unexpected, extraordinary turn. Almost to a one, those present suggested that we had missed a step. Before we could discuss issues of concern, we felt, first we had to discuss how to cultivate concern in the first place. We each described common experiences – a sense that, together with our congregants, we were going through the motions, absent the passion and spark.

The older among us reminisced about our experiences during the Soviet Jewry movement, when an energized global Jewish community rallied around a common cause. We bemoaned the fact that today, in spite of the myriad issues confronting the State of Israel, national organizations are reluctant to convene major rallies for fear of disappointing turnout.

We all spoke of the challenges we face in our attempts to arouse the passion of our respective communities around the experiences of Shabbat, Torah study and prayer. “I just wish that my congregants could become half as passionate about their spiritual search,” said one participant, “as they are about their sports teams.”

Perhaps we rabbis are partially at fault for failing to properly convey the excitement that should accompany searching for God’s will in all aspects of our lives, entering the eternal Jewish discussion through the portal of textual study, reaching beyond ourselves in heartfelt prayer and so much more. Perhaps times are different and “taking to the streets” has yielded to more sophisticated approaches, such as lobbying on Capitol Hill. Perhaps in our intellectual communities, we automatically look askance at emotionalism and fervor within religious worship.

Nonetheless, God’s final commandments to the Israelites as they prepare to depart Sinai speak to us all. Absent the spark, spirit and passion that has characterized our people’s relationship with God across the ages, our own personal religious experience is sorely lacking.

When it comes to the awakening of our spirit, we can hand the task to no one else. Each of us is challenged to fashion and sound our own symbolic chatzotzrot in order to truly experience the adventure of Sinai in our day.

II. The Clarion Call of the Shofar
Why is the shofar of Rosh Hashana always sounded in sets of three? The pattern is uniform: a broken sound of the shofar (a terua, shevarim or a combination shevarim-terua) unfailingly encompassed by two unbroken tekiot.

According to one position in the Talmud, the answer lies in a fascinating linguistic anomaly associated with the sounding of the chatzotzrot.

As indicated in our study, wilderness journeys were marked by the sounding of a terua on the trumpets. In recording this instruction, however, the Torah does not use the verb derived from the term terua, but rather the verb derived from the term tekia. In addition, the verb appears in the text both before and after the mention of the terua. Based upon this textual phenomenon, the rabbis conclude that a broken sound of the shofar is never sounded alone. Each time a terua is sounded, whether on the chatzotzrot or on the shofar, it is always to be preceded and followed by an unbroken tekia.

While neither the Torah nor the rabbis offer a rationale for the consistent enclosure of teruot within tekiot, two suggestions might be offered.

Firstly, and most obviously, this halachic detail mirrors the faith-based optimism that permeates our entire tradition. The broken sounds of the trumpets and the shofar never appear in isolation. No matter how difficult the times may be, no matter how overwhelming the challenge, we believe with a full heart in God’s personal care for us and in His promises to our people. Even though a terua may define our present experience, the tekia will eventually be heard.

Secondly, the threefold sounding of the chatzotzrot and the shofar speaks to the way that Jews view time. To the outside world, only the present is certain. The past is a dim memory, the future hidden in mists of mystery. To the Jew, however, the opposite is true. The past is as certain as the clarion call of the shofar at Sinai; the future, as certain as the tekia that will herald the Mashiach. The only thing that is uncertain is the here and now. What role will I play in the unfolding drama of my people?

The threefold sounding of the shofar squarely presents the Jewish vision of past, present and future for our consideration on Rosh Hashana. We are reminded that the task of each individual Jew is to transform his own personal terua into an unbroken tekia, thus uniting the clarion call of the past to the clarion call of the future, which is certain to come.