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B’HA'ALOT’KHA - Elizabeth Crossick

At first glance, this week’s parasha seems a little remote, a little out of touch with the modern world.

  • Do we really believe God exists in a white fluffy cloud?
  • Would we behave like those early Israelites and do as we were told?
  • Do we really care about the blowing of trumpets?

Is there anything in this for us, today?

So it was with a bit of a heavy heart that I sat down to try to figure out what relevance I could draw from these texts.

As it happens, I had to do another talk at a work related conference this week, on an equally scintillating subject, on whether or not regulation actually works and whether there alternatives. What, if anything, makes people obey rules.

And I suddenly realised I was looking at similar issues for both talks.

The parasha’s opening scene is incredibly visual isn’t it?  The Israelites, having spent their first year in Sinai, are now on the move as nomads. Incidentally, before I actually went to Israel, I thought it was enormous – after all the desert must be huge to wander in it for 40 years. Clearly Moses had a worse sense of direction than I have – and believe me that takes some doing.

And then, in verse 10 of today’s parashah we are told that:

The Eternal told Moses to “make two trumpets of silver which you will use to summon the congregation – EDAH and cause the camps  - MACHANOT – to march

So, the Israelites, newly organised in divisions – or Machanot - led by the Covenant - with its Ark containing the ten commandments – their physical and metaphorical guide journeyed through the wilderness to the promised land. God appeared as a cloud, when the cloud lifted, the Israelites journeyed, when it descended, as fire over the Tabernacle, they set up camp. When God told them to make camp, they did, when he told them to break camp, they did. They observed God’s mandate, God’s rules.

So what can be wrong with that then? Well – spoiler alert – it didn’t end up so well for them did it?  In fact, it infantilised them, they behaved like children, moaning and whining, they were hungry, they were tired, they were cold, they were generally miserable. And ultimately, they lost faith. When the scouts came back from viewing the promised land, they became afraid. They didn’t believe they could fight the enemies and claim Eretz Israel, and God punished them for it. Not a single member of that generation would live to see it; hence their nomadic life for 40 years.

The trouble with rules is that they can create a parent-child relationship between the rule giver and the rule taker. They certainly don’t encourage personal responsibility and they lead to a blame culture. In business, it means mistakes are hidden rather than owned up to. So problems deepen rather than getting resolved and mistakes made will likely have significant consequences to the bottom line, rather than being instructive, a possibility to learn, improve and adjust.

There is a great deal of research on what is the best way to get companies, and those who run them – people - to behave better. Rooted in behavioural psychology the research tells us that we are strongly influenced by our social groups, our communities. Homo Sapiens are unique in the animal kingdom in that we have the ability to make moral judgements. This has enabled our species to be able to collaborate, which is critical for our success.

We have found that when regulators use rules to control behaviour, people do not feel vested in the outcomes. They find loopholes, ways out, each to him or herself, individuals rather than communities.

Now we can begin to see a parallel

Let’s go back to that word Machanot, a camp, a defensive formation needed to keep safe whilst facing the enemy. This grouping is united by fear, the common enemy, the unknown. It’s hierarchical and lead by God through Moses. It’s reactive, it’s a response to the past – its memory is enslavement by the Egyptians. And importantly it is directed by rules and regulations 

“they observed the Lord’s mandate at the Lord’s bidding through Moses”.

In a seminal text by the late Rabbi Soloveichik, he noted:

There are two ways in which people become a group, the first  form of association is when they face a common enemy. Like all animals who come together in herds or flocks to defend themselves against predators, we do this for our survival. Such a group is a Machaneh, a camp.

But there is another, quite different form of association. People who come together because they share a vision, an aspiration, a set of ideals. This is the meaning of Edah, congregation. People who join together to do what no one could achieve alone. This is a proactive response, preparing for the future, something human beings alone can do, envisioning something and collaborating together to make it happen.

And if we go back to that para 10, we can see that God has introduced this word, Edah – as well. Why did he need to? Surely Machaneh was sufficient for the purposes of summoning the Israelites to assemble or to march. Why introduce Edah too?  Could it be that in ancient times, before anyone studied human behaviour, our ancestors understood what we are learning today.? That you need a feeling of community, of shared values, of belonging, for society to really work. And that you need symbols that stir us to action, flags, anthems or – the Shofar. Its presence dates back to this very parasha, Moses was instructed that the two silver trumpets should sound notes in very specific ways, long blasts, Tekiah, and short sounds, T’ruah. And today the shofar frames many of our festivals, calling us to attention, and – in Yom Kippur, to action. Its haunting sounds that beckon the on-coming of Yom Kippur encourage us to contemplate and consider our errors – together, as a group, as a community.

So whilst I don’t think I will be introducing the shofar to my company any time soon, it's been quite a revelation to realise that these very modern ways of thinking, are actually very old indeed.

Elizabeth Crossick















Tue, 20 October 2020 2 Cheshvan 5781