The Friday after the Boston Marathon bombing, Cambridge was in lockdown. The official term was “shelter in place” – which means everyone stayed home, pretended to do work, but really just stared at the TV waiting for someone to tell us we could go outside.
Shabbat plans were in flux all day. I had invited people for Shabbat dinner, we had no idea if the “shelter in place” would end in time for them to come over, or if public transportation would start again, or if the shul would be open. Finally, after everyone had pretty much backed out of dinner, an hour before Shabbat they released the lockdown and my dinner plans were saved. As I sat by the front door of my building waiting for my guests to arrive, I read my new(ish) Rambam book, starting the section on Laws of Fast Days, which I thought would be boring. It started with:
It is a positive commandment of the Torah to publicly cry out [in prayer] and to sound the trumpets when any tragedy strikes the community, as it says “When you go to war in your land against an enemy who oppresses you, you shall sound the trumpets” (Bamidbar 10:9). [This commandment is not limited to war alone,] but whenever disaster strikes – including famine, plague, locusts or the like – we should cry out, praying to God, and sounding the trumpets. This is done to bring the people to do teshuvah. For when a tragedy occurs and people cry out to God, sounding trumpets, everyone understands that [the tragedy] came about because of their sins, as it says “Your sins have withheld the bounty from you” (Yirmeyah 5:25). This will help to remove the calamity. If people don’t cry out and sound the trumpets, considering this calamity to be a natural occurrence, they are callous. [Their outlook] prompts them to keep up their sinful ways, thus bringing on themselves more tragedy.
As you can imagine this hit pretty close to home. But it seems to differ a lot from our actual practice. Where were the trumpets during this community tragedy?
The wording of this commandment seems to dictate a response like the one we saw from the Westboro Baptist Church, blaming the bombing on our sins. But I’m certainly not suggesting we as Jews should respond that way. What place does this commandment have in a world where we feel like we have a good understanding of cause and effect? We’re pretty sure that our sins don’t cause other people to bomb marathons.
But that’s not to say we can’t look at this as an opportunity to better ourselves, even if we don’t think this tragedy was caused by our sins. We all have room for improvement, room for teshuvah, and we’re all busy with our lives and forget about it. But maybe we still need the trumpets and need to see the tragedy as a reminder that we have work to do, on ourselves and on the world around us.