Director of LILMOD and Head of the European Desk at Torah Mitzion
Good Trumpet, Bad Trumpet
There is a well-known rule: the greater the expectations – the greater the disappointment. Some people prefer to lower their expectations, while others strive for greatness, even if they will sometimes suffer from bitter disappointment.
It is hard to imagine a situation with greater expectations than in our parsha. Ever since Parashat Yitro, way back in Sefer Shemot (Exodus), Am Yisrael has been waiting expectantly. While we may be tempted to view our arrival at Har Sinai and receiving the Torah as the end point of our journey, in actuality the final destination was and always has been Eretz Yisrael. From that point of view Am Yisrael has been detained for a long time. The very first Shavuot, in which we received the Torah, took place merely 7 weeks after leaving Egypt. Our parsha, in which we finally depart from Har Sinai, takes place in the second month (i.e. Iyar) of the second year, a full 11 months since we arrived.
During that time many momentous events took place; receiving the Torah (Shavuot) , waiting 40 days for Moshe, The Sin of the Golden Calf (17 of Tamuz), Moshe returning to the mountain for another 80 days, being forgiven and getting the second tablets (Yom Kippur), building the Mishkan, learning all the details of the korbanot in the book of Vayikra, the inauguration of the Mishkan, counting the tribes and the Levi’im and finally organizing the camps in their marching order.
Finally, after that long string of events, Am Yisrael began advancing once again towards Israel. No longer a group of freed slaves, they are now an organized nation, centered around the divine presence in their midst.
Imagine the great expectations you would have had being there. After dreaming of freedom all your life, you are now finally on your way to the land of your forefathers, which is so close you can practically see it.
And now we can imagine the even greater disappointment when we read about the first event after leaving Har Sinai:
“The people were looking to complain, and it was evil in the ears of the Lord. The Lord heard and His anger flared, and a fire from the Lord burned among them, consuming the extremes of the camp”.
From here on we will witness an unbelievable chain of sins; the nation as a whole (the Mit’onenim, complainers and The Sin of the Spies), the Asafsuf and the tribal leadership (spies, Korah, Datan and Aviram) and even Moshe, Aharon and Miriam all make mistakes. Parsha after parsha our disappointment from this stiff necked nation grows.
How can we explain where this behavior comes from?
If we backtrack a bit to the commandment we received just before we began the next leg of our journey, we will see that Hashem already prepared the nation and the future generations for such sudden and extreme shifts from good to bad: “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”.
At first the trumpets seem to be a technical detail, a practical tool to help mobilize the nation while traveling in the desert. But the trumpets also have a perennial purpose:
“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. 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; I am the Lord your God”.
It always surprised me that the same tool can be used for such diametrically opposed purposes – war and adversaries on one hand, and times of joy, holidays and sacrifices on the other. We usually differentiate between times of happiness and sorrow; Different clothes, locations, tunes… Here the Torah does the opposite. The same trumpets will be used to signify our uplifting moments as well as our crises.
In my opinion there is a deep underlying message here. Many religions view The Creator as “The Good Lord”, a terminology which exists in English, German, French and many other languages. As these cultures see god as only good, they created the concept of the Satan as a separate entity which is the source of all evil in the world.
On the other hand there are philosophical approaches that negate the inherent difference between good and bad. In their minds everything is relative, and dependent on context, with nothing being objectively good or objectively bad.
The Torah objects to both of those viewpoints. There are, without a doubt, objective truths in the world, things that are either good or bad. But both of the ultimately stem from the same, one G-d.
The trumpets symbolize exactly that – one the one hand, there are distinct sound we make for different events – the Tekia for happy events and the Teru’a for negative ones. We cannot forget that distinction and simply accept everything with the same stoic façade. But at the same time, we still use the same tool to create the different sounds, because the source of everything is always one.
As Yeshayahu describes Hashem: “Who forms light and creates darkness, Who makes peace and creates evil; I am the Lord, Who makes all these”.
Now we can return to our opening question. The same theological dualism regarding the essence of good and evil can and is translated to social and psychological spheres as well. We tend to see people, groups and nations as either ‘good’ or ‘bad’, often ignoring whatever elements don’t match the mold we created in our minds. It is far more difficult to grasp the more complex and multifaceted picture, in which a group or an individual can do wonderful things one moment and the next commit the most horrible crimes.
The generation in the desert (like every generation) is complex. On the one hand they can serve as role models of faith and spirituality, but on the other hand they also serve as a warning not to repeat their sins and mistakes.
We are challenged to remember that the same generation could both accept the Torah and demand to return to Egypt, to realize that the same trumpet can signify good or bad. By doing that we can learn lessons for ourselves, for we too are a complex mixture of good and bad.