Beha’alotcha: The Travel Codes

There were approximately two million Jews traveling across the desert and it would have been impossible for a human voice to be heard over the din, so G-d commanded the use of different trumpet blasts.

Rabbi Lazer Gurkow, | updated: 08:51

Rabbi Lazer Gurkow
Rabbi Lazer Gurkow
Rabbi Lazer Gurkow

G-d developed travel codes in the desert to instruct the nation on when to gather and when to travel. There were approximately two million Jews traveling across the desert and it would have been impossible for a human voice to be heard over the din. G-d established a musical code using trumpets. When a tekiah [long blast] was sounded, it was a signal to gather. When a teruah [a series of short staccato blasts] were sounded, it was a signal to travel.

After outlining these codes, the Torah seems to repeat itself by saying, “when assembling the congregation, you shall blow a tekiah but not a teruah.” Why does the Torah repeat itself?

Three blasts
These blasts are familiar to us from the sound of the Shofar on Rosh Hashanah. We sound three kinds of blasts, two of which were mentioned here. The first is a tekiah [long blast], the second is a shevarim [series of three intermediate blasts], and the final is a teruah [a series of short staccato blasts].

The Shofar is sounded on Rosh Hashanah to inspire us to repentance and indeed, these three blasts reflect three modes of repentance.

The rudimentary mode is to repent as a result of suffering. When we suffer a series of mishaps, one following the other, we begin to reflect on our behavior and strive to correct what requires correction. This is synonymous with tekiah, which means G-d trumpets. G-d trumpets our guilt through a series of punishing pricks, and it awakens us from our spiritual slumber. Although our repentance is not self inspired, G-d, nevertheless, accepts it.

The second mode is to repent from fear of suffering. This mode is synonymous with shevarim [three intermediate blasts that sound like moans]. We commit sins and fear divine punishment. Moaning in fear, we repent and G-d accepts the repentance. Clearly, this repentance is better than the former.

The third mode of repentance is the highest. It is a repentance born of love rather than fear. This repentance is not born out of suffering or even fear of suffering. This repentance is stimulated by our absolute and pervasive love for G-d, the feeling that we can no more separate from G-d than we can separate from ourselves. Delving into these feelings compels us to repent and to return to G-d.

This is the highest mode of repentance; not only does it utterly erase our sins, it transforms them into merits. This mode is synonymous with teruah [short staccato blasts that sound like the wailing of grief]. In this mode of repentance, our evil inclination wails in grief over its own death and the death of the sins to which it provoked us.

The Order
We now understand the order of the three blasts on Rosh Hashanah. We begin with a tekiah because we begin the process of repentance in the basic introductory mode. We then sound the shevarim because we graduate to the next level of repentance, where we repent out of fear of suffering rather than the suffering itself. Finally, we sound the teruah, which represents the highest form of repentance.

After sounding all three blasts, we repeat the tekiah. What is the meaning of the second tekiah?

The second and final tekiah represents the great Shofar that G-d will sound just before the coming of the Mashiach. We explained earlier that tekiah means trumpeted by G-d. This final blast, the blast that represents the coming of Mashiach, will be trumpeted by G-d. After we cycle through all three modes of repentance, we sound a tekiah to indicate that with the third and noblest form of repentance we become worthy of the ultimate redemption.

Back to the Text
We now return to the biblical text and its attendant questions. The travel codes were not only instructions for physical travel, but also for spiritual travel. The journey through the desert represented a journey through life, and in that sense the travel codes apply to us too. You can’t journey unless you first pack up and clean up. That represents repentance. Only after repentance can we journey forward on an unending quest for closeness with G-d.

Thus, the travel codes were a summons for action. When a tekiah was sounded, it was a signal for the nation to gather at the central meeting place–the tabernacle. Tekiah G-d is calling on us to repent– summoning us to His tent of Meeting. Tekiah is G-d provoking us to rudimentary repentance through the little pricks of life that remind us to repent.

Gathering at G-d’s tent is only the first step. The next step is to journey forth, higher and deeper–ever closer to G-d, until we become worthy of redemption. This is why the signal to journey forth is teruah, the symbol of repentance inspired by love for G-d, which makes us worthy of Mashiach.

The Torah concludes that when the entire congregation gathers, we sound the tekiah, rather than the teruah. This is not a repetition of the first verse, it refers to an entirely new gathering. It is a euphemism for the time of Mashiach when all Jews will be united in a mutual and eternal quest for ever increasing closeness with G-d. When the entire nation gathers, when the Mashiach comes, there will only be a tekiah, the sound of G-d trumpeting the great Shofar. At that time, there will be no further teruah.

The teruah, as noble and spiritually uplifting as it is, can only apply when there are sins from which to repent. When the Mashiach comes, there will be no further sins. We will have nothing to repent from. It will be a time of pure and utter holiness. There will be no place for the teruah.

However, there is something nostalgic and precious about repentance, especially repentance out of love. The Torah’s proclamation that there will be no repentance when the Mashiach comes carries a double message. It encourages us to reach this pinnacle of spiritual achievement, the apex of righteousness and purity. On the other hand, it reminds us to take advantage of our current state to repent at the level of teruah.

Take advantage of the moment and repent today, for tomorrow, after your repentance will be complete, it will be too late. You will have nothing to repent for.






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