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Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks

The sedrah of Beha’alotcha speaks about the silver trumpets – clarions – Moses was commanded to make: “The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: ‘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’ ”(10:1-2).

This apparently simple passage became a springboard for one of the most profound meditations of the late Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, zt”l. It appears in the course of 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, 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. Edot (as opposed to chukkim and mishpatim) are the commands that testify to Jewish belief – as Shabbat testifies to creation, Pesach to the divine involvement in history, and so on. 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, says Rabbi Soloveitchik, 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 that probably 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. Rabbi Soloveitchik calls this the covenant of fate (brit goral).

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 and 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” (Esther 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 G-d’ (Deuteronomy 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” (Maimonides, Laws of Gifts to the Poor, 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. Rabbi Soloveitchik calls this 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.” Under this covenant, the Jewish people are 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 G-d’s people at Sinai when they said, “We will do and obey” (Exodus 24:7). Destiny, call, vocation, purpose, and task: these create not a machaneh but an edah, not a camp but a congregation.

No one defined the Jewish destiny more simply or nobly than the prophet Isaiah, who said in the name of G-d:

“You are my witnesses [edei],” declares the Lord,

“and my servant whom I have chosen …

I have revealed and saved and proclaimed;

I, and not some foreign god among you.

You are my witnesses [edei],” declares the Lord, “that I am G-d” (Isaiah 43:10-12).

The word edei, my witnesses, is from the same root as edah, a congregation. Our task as a people of destiny is to bear witness to the presence of G-d – through the way we lead our lives (Torah) and the path we chart as a people across the centuries (history).

The events of the past century – persecution, pogroms, the rise of racial anti-Semitism and the unfolding of the Holocaust, followed by the birth of the State of Israel and the constant fight it has had to undertake to survive against war and terror – have immeasurably deepened the brit goral, the covenant of fate, that still continues to unite Jews in the face of the hostility of the outside world. We are, and remain, a machaneh, a camp.

But we are no longer an edah, a congregation. Instead we have fissured and fractured into different edot: Orthodox and Reform, religious and secular, and the many subdivisions that continue to atomize Jewish life into non-communicating sects and subcultures.

The words of our sedrah still contain a challenge: “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.” Our identity as Jews is not just as a camp but also as a congregation. We need to recover our vision of what it is to be G-d’s witnesses on earth.

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Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks was the former chief rabbi of the British Commonwealth and the author and editor of 40 books on Jewish thought. He died earlier this month.