Camp and congregation


The parsha of Behaalotecha speaks about the silver trumpets — clarions — Moshe was commanded to make (Bamidbar 10:1-2): “Make two trumpets of silver; make them of hammered work. They shall serve you to summon the congregation [edah] and cause the camps [machanot] to journey.”

This apparently simple passage became a springboard for one of the most profound meditations of the late Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik in his great essay Kol Dodi Dofek on the Jewish approach to suffering. 

There are, says Rabbi Soloveitchik, two ways in which people become a group — a community, society, or nation. The first is when they face a common enemy. They band together for mutual protection. Such a group is a machaneh — a camp, a defensive formation.

There is another, quite different, form of association. People can come together because they share a vision, a set of ideals. This is the meaning of edah, congregation. Edot are the commands that testify to Jewish belief, as Shabbat testifies to creation, Passover to Divine involvement in history, and so on. An edah is not a defensive formation, but a creative one. People join together to do what none could achieve alone. A true congregation is a society built around a shared vision of the common good.

Rabbi Soloveitchik says these are not just two types of group, but in the most profound sense, two different ways of 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, and collaborate to bring it about.

Jews are a people in both these ways. Our ancestors became a machaneh in Egypt, forged together in a crucible of slavery. They were different. They were not Egyptians. Ever since, Jews have known that we are thrown together by circumstance. Rabbi Soloveitchik calls this the covenant of fate.

This is not purely negative. 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 shared fate leads to a sense of shared suffering. When we pray for a sick person, we do so “among all the sick of Israel.” When we comfort a mourner, we do so “among all other mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.”

But there is an additional element of Jewish identity. Soloveitchik calls this the covenant of destiny, entered into at Mount Sinai. It defines the people of Israel not as the object of persecution but the subject of a unique vocation, to become “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.”

Under this covenant, we became defined not by what others do to us but by the role we have chosen to play in history. We did not choose to become slaves. We did, however, choose to become G-d’s people. Destiny, purpose, task: these create not a machaneh, but an edah.

Our task as a people of destiny is to bear witness to the presence of G-d through the way we lead our lives and the path we chart through history.

Nations are usually forged through long historical experience, through what happens to them. They fall into the category of machaneh. Religions, on the other hand, are defined in terms of beliefs and a sense of mission. Each is an edah. There are nations that contain many religions and there are religions that are spread over many nations, but only in the case of Judaism do religion and nation coincide.

This has had remarkable consequences. For almost two thousand years, Jews were scattered throughout the world, yet they saw themselves and were seen by others as a nation. Rashi spoke French, Maimonides Arabic. Rashi lived in a Christian culture, Maimonides in a Muslim one. While the Jews of Spain enjoyed a Golden Age, the Jews of northern Europe were being massacred in the Crusades. When the Jews of Spain were expelled, those of Poland were enjoying a rare spring of tolerance. What held them together was shared faith.

In the trauma that accompanied European Emancipation and the rise of racial anti-Semitism, many Jews lost that faith. Yet the events of the past century — persecution, pogroms, and Holocaust, followed by the birth of the State of Israel and the constant fight against war and terror — bound Jews together in a covenant of fate in the face of the hostility of the world.

Judaism in the past two centuries has fractured into different edot: Orthodox and Reform, religious and secular, and the many subdivisions that continue to atomize Jewish life into non-communicating sects. Yet in times of crisis we still heed the call of collective responsibility, knowing that Jewish fate tends to be indivisible. No Jew, to paraphrase John Donne, is an island.

The duality was given its first expression this week in Behaalotecha, with the command: “Make two trumpets of silver; make them of hammered work. They shall serve you to summon the congregation [edah], and cause the camps [machanot] to journey.”

Sometimes the clarion call speaks to our sense of faith. We are G-d’s people, emissaries and ambassadors charged with making His presence real in the world by healing deeds and holy lives. At other times the trumpet that summons us is the call of fate: Jewish lives endangered by unremitting hostility.


Whichever sound the instruments make, they call on that duality that makes Jews and Judaism inseparable. However deep the divisions, we remain one family, in fate and faith. When the trumpet sounds, it sounds for us.