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Who Can We Blame?

By: Rabbi Eitan Mayer

As Parshat Mattot comes to a close, the people of Reuven and Gad approach Moshe Rabbeinu and the other leaders of Bnei Yisrael and request not to cross from (what is today) Jordan into Eretz Yisrael. Instead, they request to receive the land they currently occupy, the land conquered by Bnei Yisrael on their way to Eretz Yisrael. When Moshe Rabbeinu scornfully wonders how they can consider remaining behind while Am Yisrael goes on to fight for its real Land, they offer to have their soldiers accompany the nation on its conquest: “…We will deploy swiftly before Bnei Yisrael, until we have brought them to their place… we will not return to our homes until each man of Bnei Yisrael has received his portion” (32:17-18).

Moshe Rabbeinu accepts their offer, but in a rather wordy way: “If you will do this – if you will deploy before Hashem for war; if all of your chosen soldiers will cross the Jordan (River) before Hashem, until He drives out His enemies from before Him; when the Land is conquered before Hashem – then shall you return, and you shall be free in Hashem’s eyes and Israel’s, and then this land shall be your possession before Hashem…” (32:20-22).

The casual reader, having read this section, will conclude that it’s important to report this detail so that later generations understand why part of the Jewish people lives outside Israel proper, or outside its original borders; but why are all these details important? And why do they need to be repeated by Moshe as he reprises the deal? And in fact, as we read on, we find that the deal is repeated several more times. Why?

A less casual reading provides some answers. Who’s doing the fighting and the conquering? Look again at the quotation above, and you’ll see that Reuven and Gad clearly state that it is they and the soldiers of Bnei Yisrael who together will win the war. But Moshe tells a different story, and the way Moshe tells it, it is Hashem who will do the fighting; it is Hashem who will win the war; it is Hashem who will vanquish His enemies; meanwhile, the soldiers of Bnei Yisrael will engage in what amounts more or less to a victory march through the Land in Hashem’s victorious wake.

Many generations later, we, too, still need reminding that success in war doesn’t depend just on Apaches, F-16’s, Merkavas, and human courage. It is Hashem’s subtle hand which allows us to wield our weapons with skill and accuracy, and without that help, even mighty Israel can lose. Generations later, millennia later, when we experience a serious military setback such as that of the Lebanon war of Summer 2006, our commissions of inquiry, our journalists, our commentators and our own thoughts often seek the cause in the mistakes of politicians and commanders, as if we believed that wars are won and lost just by the decisions of politicians and commanders.

Moshe Rabbeinu teaches us that the roots of victory and defeat are deeper than these superficial factors. If we win, it is Hashem who has conquered; if we lose, it is not Hashem who has lost, but we who have lost, as Hashem has not joined us on the battlefield. It is we who have not deserved that Hashem provide us with better leaders, or that He guide their weak hands and hearts in the moment of destiny.

When, after the sin of the Meraglim (spies), Bnei Yisrael were relegated to die out in the desert over forty years, the nation rose up and tried to turn things around, assembling before Moshe, ready to accept Hashem’s assurances and enter the battle for Eretz Yisrael. Moshe warned them that it was too late; that Hashem would not be with them; that they would now lose to the very Canaanite armies they had so feared. And so it was – the very same armies Hashem would have helped Bnei Yisrael conquer now thoroughly routed them, striking them down as they pursued them off the field. What made the difference between a Jewish army which won and one which lost? Wasn’t it the very same soldiers as before? But now Hashem was not with them.

When, in the second battle for Eretz Yisrael, against the city of Ai, the army of Bnei Yisrael was beaten back, when they carried home the bodies of the 36 fallen Jewish soldiers, Yehoshua did not seek the cause of the defeat in poor training or ill-conceived tactical decisions. He went straight to Hashem, seeking a spiritual cause, and Hashem confirmed that the defeat was the price of sin, the transgression of Achan, who had stolen from the spoils of Jericho.

And so, today, it is our job, in moments of reflection such as the season of destruction between Shivah Asar Be-Tammuz and Tishah Be-Av, to seek the causes of our victories and defeats in the same place. Pointing fingers at politicians or generals, finding fault with budgetary neglect or military complacency, may well be the proximal (closest) causes, but they only lead us to the next question, the true question: Why did Hashem allow His people to come to this? The answer for every one of us in the mirror.

May Hashem help us, as we pray daily in Shemoneh Esrei, to do teshuvah – individually, communally, and as a nation. May He give us the wisdom and insight not to be distracted by surface factors which did not cause our problems and whose disappearance would not solve them. May He give us the strength to find the problems in ourselves, and the will and fortitude to become better and to deserve the support of His protective guiding hand.

Shabbat shalom,

Rav Eitan




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