Notifications Now and Then

Beha'alotekha By :  Tim Daniel Bernard RS '09 Posted On Jun 24, 2016 / 5776 | דבר אחר | A Different Perspective

How often do we hear this sound, or feel the vibrations of a mobile device demanding our attention? Breaking news, emails, traffic, and game updates—alerts both trivial and critical are brought to us by beeps, bars of music, and buzzes.

Although the medium may be new, the need to communicate across distances is not. Numbers 10:1–10 directs the making and usage of a pair of silver trumpets—not musical instruments, but sirens, calling Israelites to assemble, instructing them to travel in formation, alerting them to enemy attack and to holidays and sacrificial rites.

An obvious difference between the blare of the trumpet and the ping of a cell phone is that the latter is individualized and the former is communal. We receive our own texts and alter our app settings to choose when we are to be bothered; the trumpets of the Torah were the same for everyone.

Except: in the US, emergency alerts are now sent to every smartphone in the relevant geographic area all at once. And, during the Gaza war in 2014, the app צבע אדום (“Red Alert”) was installed by hundreds of thousands of Israelis to inform them of imminent rocket attacks, even when out of the range of hearing for the traditional sirens. At the encouragement of a US congressman, an English version of the app was also created, which served a political purpose, but also bridged another gap between our world and that of the Bible: despite the thousands of miles now separating Jews of the Diaspora from those in Israel, the ubiquitous mobile notification became one tiny way to keep us connected.