Vort from the Rav: Beha’alosecha

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Bamidbar 10:2

עֲשֵׂה לְךָ שְׁתֵּי חֲצוֹצְרֹת כֶּסֶף…וְהָיוּ לְךָ לְמִקְרָא הָעֵדָה וּלְמַסַּע אֶת הַמַּחֲנוֹת

Make yourself two silver trumpets…they shall be used by you to summon the congregation and to announce the departure of the camps.

There are two ways in which people become bound as a group—as a community, a society, or a nation. The first is when they face a common enemy. They band together for mutual protection, knowing that only by so doing can they survive. This phenomenon extends far beyond Homo sapiens. Animals, too, come together in herds or flocks to defend themselves against predators. Such a group is a machaneh—a camp, a defensive formation.

There is a quite different form of association. People can come together because they share a vision, an aspiration, a set of ideals. This is the meaning of edah, a congregation. Edah is related to the word ed, a witness. An edah is not a defensive formation but a creative one. People join to do together what none of them could achieve alone. A society built around a shared project, a vision of the common good, is not a machaneh but an edah—not a camp, but a congregation.

These are not just two types of groups, but in the most profound sense, two different ways of existing and relating to the world. A camp is brought into being by what happens to it from the outside.

A congregation comes into existence by internal decision. The former is reactive, the latter proactive. The first is a response to what has happened to the group in the past. The second represents what the group seeks to achieve in the future. Whereas camps exist even in the animal kingdom, congregations are uniquely human. They flow from the human ability to think, speak, communicate, envision a society different from any that has existed in the past, and to collaborate to bring it about.

Jews are a people in both these two quite different ways. Our ancestors became a machaneh in Egypt, forged together in the crucible of slavery and suffering. They were different. They were not Egyptians. They were Hebrews—a word which means “on the other side, an outsider.”

Ever since, Jews have known that we are thrown together by circumstance. We share a history all too often written in tears. This is the covenant of fate. This is not a purely negative phenomenon. It gives rise to a powerful sense that we are part of a single story—that what we have in common is stronger than the things that separate us. Our fate does not distinguish between aristocrats and common folk, between rich and poor, between a prince garbed in the royal purple and the pauper begging from door to door, between the pietist and the assimilationist. Even though we speak a plethora of languages, even though we are inhabitants of different lands, we still share the same fate. If the Jew in the hovel is beaten, then the security of the Jew in the palace is endangered. Do not think that you, of all the Jews, will escape with your life by being in the king’s palace (Es. 4:13).

It leads also to a sense of shared suffering. When we pray for the recovery of a sick person, we do so “among all the sick of Israel.” When we comfort a mourner, we do so “among all the other mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.” We weep together. We celebrate together. This in turn leads to shared responsibility: “All Israel are sureties for one another.” And this leads to collective action in the field of welfare, charity and deeds of loving kindness. As Maimonides puts it: All Israelites and those who have attached themselves to them are to one another like brothers, as it is said, You are children of the Lord your God (Deut. 14: 1). If brother shows no compassion to brother, who then will? To whom shall the poor of Israel raise their eyes? To the heathens who hate and persecute them? Their eyes are therefore lifted to their brothers (Hilchos Matnos Aniyim 10:2).

All these are dimensions of the covenant of fate, born in the experience of slavery in Egypt. But there is an additional element of Jewish identity: the covenant of destiny (brit ye’ud)—entered into at Mount Sinai. This defines the people Israel not as the object of persecution but the subject of a unique vocation, to become a kingdom of priests and a holy nation (Ex. 19:6). Under this covenant, the Jewish people is defined not by what others do to it, but by the task it has undertaken, the role it has chosen to play in history. The Israelites did not choose to become slaves in Egypt. That was a fate thrust upon them by someone else. They did, however, choose to become God’s people at Sinai when they said, We will do and obey (Ex. 24:7).

Destiny, call, vocation, purpose, task: these create not a machaneh but an edah, not a camp but a congregation. (Rabbi Jonathan Sacks Summary of Kol Dodi Dofek)

From the newly released Chumash Mesoras HaRav – Sefer Bamidbar

About Arnold Lustiger

Dr. Arnold Lustiger is a research scientist and has edited multiple volumes of the Rav's Torah, including the recently published Chumash Mesoras HaRav.

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