Through the remaining weeks of June and July we will be reading the Book of Numbers. Chapter 10 of Numbers sets forth God’s command to make two trumpets of hammered silver, to summon the congregation [the “edah” in Hebrew] and to cause the camp [the “machaneh”] to journey.” (Num. 10:1–2). Rav Soloveitchik, the late Rosh Yeshiva at the Theological Seminary at Yeshiva University, saw in those two trumpets a metaphor for two major reasons that human beings form groups, whether those groups are nations, communities or congregations. Using this metaphor, he wrote his famous essay “Encampment and Congregation” contained in his book Kol Dodi Dofek: Listen, My Beloved Knocks.
The first reason human beings come together is to confront a common enemy. When we share an adversary, we often band against them for mutual protection and survival, much as primates have done since they first evolved in the savannahs of Africa. This is the organizing principle of the machaneh, the camp, which journeys and settles together to combine the strength of many against threats to safety and continuity. The camp comes together because of outside pressure and is primarily reactive: What are our threats? How will we survive? Who will defend us?
Human beings also come together for a second reason. We join with others when we share a common set of aspirations for the future, a future we cannot achieve alone. This is the unifying vision of the edah, the congregation, that comes together around common principles and a shared vision for the future Destiny is the foundation of the Congregation. The edah, the congregation, proactively works together from the unity of a shared vision and imagines a future obtainable by deliberate action founded on principles more enduring than simply reacting to the present crisis or challenge.
According to Rav Soloveitchik, the camp is bound by the brit goral, the covenant of fate, which binds us together by reason of common history and heritage. The congregation, on the other hand, is bound together by the brit ye’ud, the covenant of destiny, defined not, as Rabbi Jonathan Sacks points out, by what other people do to us, or by what they think about us, but by the principles and ideals we chose for ourselves and the aspirations for the future we share. The Jewish people began with a covenant of fate in Egypt, Rav Soloveitchik writes, and accepted a covenant of destiny on Mt. Sinai. In Egypt, we were only in camp, at Mt. Sinai, the people of Israel became a congregation.
Thousands of years later, fate and destiny still call to us. One calls us to journey together as a Jewish minority amid a majority still struggling to understand how much we have in common. With the rise of antisemitism, both here and abroad, we need each other more than ever for mutual support and protection. This is the covenant of fate we share.
The other covenant, the covenant of destiny, brings us together, not out of fear but because of a shared vision of what a congregation, acting together, can accomplish based on the shared principles of faith and tradition. As we end one school and fiscal year and look forward to another, we know we will have cause to answer the call of both trumpets, to both journey and gather, together. As we respond to the demands of fate and gather the strands of destiny that will propel us into the next decade of the 21stcentury, may both the covenant of fate and the covenant of destiny remind us of all we share and all we can achieve together.
Rabbi Michael Howald