This week's portion is full of many stories. In the middle of this, God instructs Moses how to play the trumpet:
1. And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, 2. Make two trumpets of silver; of a whole piece shall you make them; that you may use them for calling the assembly, and for the journeying of the camps. 3. And when they shall blow with them, all the assembly shall assemble to you at the door of the Tent of Meeting. 4. And if they blow but with one trumpet, then the princes, which are chiefs of the thousands of Israel, shall gather themselves to you. 5. When you blow an alarm, then the camps that lie on the east parts shall go forward. 6. When you blow an alarm the second time, then the camps that lie on the south side shall take their journey; they shall blow an alarm for their journeys. 7. But when the congregation is to be gathered together, you shall blow, but you shall not sound an alarm. 8. And the sons of Aaron, the priests, shall blow with the trumpets; and they shall be to you for an ordinance forever throughout your generations. [Numbers 10:1-8]
We are all familiar in some extent with the blowing of these horns. The silver trumpets of the Temple were replaced with the shofar of the High Holiday service. The blowing of the horn in this text is tikiah and the blowing of the alarm was t'ruah or possibly tikiah t'ruah. The one point where everyone from the youngest to the oldest person in any congregation is in the same room is to hear the shofar.
Why this? Why of all the things that happens during services is the Shofar so important? When I was young, all I remember is that everyone made big deal over this silly ram horn. Some might give the answer that it is time to wake up, but that answer has never satisfied me – why do the little ones need to wake up?
In the modern service, the shofar for me is just show, razzle dazzle which keeps the crowds coming in who are not there to say the Shema or Amidah. I may be immensely cynical here but it is the shofar and Yizkor which fills synagogues on the high holidays, some obligation to do those two things that are not done at daily or Shabbat services. I believe we are trained from an early age to find obligation in hearing the shofar. Indeed the rabbis of the Mishnah require hearing the Shofar. Yet the Rabbis are very clear in requiring the Amidah and Shema daily. For some reason people come running to hear the shofar but are hard pressed to say the Shema even once a week.
One answer is in its novelty. It is a part of a tradition which only occurs at a certain part of the year. The Shema is a part of the mundane, said at least twice daily if you are observant. Such mundane tasks are forgotten in much of modernity, yet the novel event, like the shofar is remembered just because it is different.
Yet the sounds of the horns or shofars of biblical times were very different than modernity. They were the mass communication of the day. While they might not be sounded every day, they were sounded each time the cloud moved from above the Mishkan, not just once but twice. One half, referred to as the east camps would begin to move on the first tikiah t’ruah. When the second tikiah t’ruah was made the south camps moved. When the cloud was at rest the sound of tikiah gathered the people together for worship and teaching. It was an occasion that happened often in the time in the wilderness. It happened when moving from place to place or before sacrificing at the festivals in the desert.
The sound of tikiah and t'ruah were the sounds of coordination. Today in many synagogues, they are merely the sounds of tradition and obligation. We tech them to the children sitting there excitedly because it instills in them some sense of meaning of tradition, yet in most congregations we do not gather at the high holidays to say the Shema as a family. The Shema, shouted at the tops of lungs, with our hands over our eyes can have just as much meaning and sound as the Shofar – and it can be done every day by anyone.
As far as children and shofars go, we are also told by the rabbis:
Children need not be stopped from blowing; on the contrary, they may be helped till they learn how to blow. [Rosh Hashana 33a]
Even among children it is not an issue of hearing as much as doing, even it if is done wrong or at the wrong time. While one can witness the shofar it is even better to train the next generation to sound it with the kavvanah only children seem to have. Numbers 9:8 tells us this is “for all generations” and for it to be for all generations we must in each and every generation practice, practice and then practice again.
What I read in this text is something that disturbs me. A tradition of coordination and community changes into a tradition of mere entertainment. What the prophets complained about sacrifices being superficial, I can complain about the shofar. Like I said I may be merely cynical or cranky this week. The only saving grace for me is that in that entertainment there is some sense of wonder. There is always the possibility there kids sitting down there in front of the bimah kids who might just say “I want to do that!” and begin to practice. For most adults that will not happen, but the imagination of a child and their lack of “can’t” that adults have learned over the years does not stop them. Maybe from the shofar those kids will learn to practice others things, even the Shema.
I can only hope.