Parshat Beha'alotecha –
Rabbi Eliezer Shenvald
The Mitzvah of the trumpets in the Parsha comprises the key to understanding Jewish national existence, in regular times and during wartime. "And when you go to war in your land against the enemy which distresses you, you will sound the trumpets and be remembered before the Lord your G-d and be delivered from your enemies." (Bamidbar 10:9)
What is the purpose of the Mitzvah of sounding trumpets during a war? Is this part of the apparatus of waging the war? Are the trumpets a prearranged signal for the soldiers to charge upon the enemy?
In Israeli warfare, the sounding of the trumpets is an element of spiritual action, and because of it they are "remembered before G-d" and delivered from their enemies. It is part of a special prayer at a time of crisis and war (Rambam, Sefer HaMitzvot, positive command 59) which, like the prayer of Rosh Hashanah, includes verses of Malchuiot-Zichronot-Shofarot. (Ta'anit 17a) The sound awakens us to the awareness of "When (a man) pleads before his Creator to have mercy upon him and deliver him from his distress, this is the time he is commanded to sound the trumpets. Since man is a material being, he requires a great awakening, since nature without awakening stands as if asleep. And it is known that nothing awakens like the sound of music, and the sound of the trumpets is the greatest of them all." (Sefer HaChinuch 484) The trumpet awakens man to repentance and cheshbon nefesh (introspection) on the factors which brought on his distress. (Rambam, Ta'aniot 1,2)
The sounding of the trumpets reflects Judaism's strategic outlook on the decisive factors on the outcome of war. On one hand, in war we must act in a practical way, according to the rules of war. On the other, we understand that victory in war depends on Divine aid, and therefore we must pray, sound trumpets and repent.
Our Sages learned that the obligation to sound the trumpets is "whether you (Israel) go out against them (the enemy) or they come against you." (Sifri) So we see that this is needed in either a defensive war that is forced on us, or one that we initiate.
In a defensive war, the goal is clear: defense and rescue. Therefore the purpose of the sounding is to awaken the spiritual side of war. However in an initiated war, where we "had the choice," we take the trumpets along with the Ark of the Covenant (HaEmek Davar) and this entails additional spiritual aspects of war, which the trumpets arouse in the hearts of the warriors.
In our Beit Midrash, we differentiate between levels of a soldier's motivation to fight. The lowest level is material motivation – the promise of reward, or the threat of punishment. Above this is personal motivation – which sees performance in war a personal challenge, an opportunity for self-realization and satisfaction. And some add to these emotions of hatred and revenge. Psychological motivation – psychological rewards include honor, medals, ranks, competitiveness (outstanding cadet etc.), belonging to an elite unit ("The few, the proud…") and the promise of social status. And the converse: the shaming of cowards, deserters and those who surrender to the enemy. Above all stands spiritual, value-based motivation – the commitment to give to the nation, even at the cost of self-sacrifice (willingly, not as if "doing a favor") as the highest level of Chesed with no though of receiving repayment, and being an integral part of the body of the nation. And also to wage war for its spiritual value according to the Torah – as a Milchemet Mitzvah, when necessary, as an ideal and as a divine command to defend our nation.
These correlate to four levels of strategic consciousness and understanding of Israel's wars, and the existence of the Israeli army. Personal survival – to protect every individual and family. Above that, the collective protection of the nation from a threat to its existence. And this often costs the warriors a personal price. Above this, a high, abstract level: defending the sovereignty of the national entity, which has resources and interests that occasionally require military force to protect them. And above all is the highest purpose of the Jewish nation and protecting the nation because of this purpose, for which it exists in the world, and which is its message to all of humanity. And because of this, over all the generations, there were those who rose up and wanted to destroy it.
The sounding of the trumpets when going out to war is one of the means (along with the Cohen anointed for war) which serves as a sign and signal for spiritual and value-driven incentive, and to focus the hearts of the warriors on the highest motivation for battle. "And he (the soldier) goes to war for the unity of G-d, and will put his soul (life) in his hand, and will not fear." (Rambam, Melachim)