From Rav Binny:
If you would have collected a group of world- renowned military strategists on October 6th, 1973, and asked them, at 4p.m. Israel time, for a prognosis on the status of the events unfolding on the Golan heights that afternoon, they would have probably told you Israel should be preparing the airport and shipping ports for a massive evacuation. And in all honesty, they would have been right. After all, scarcely two hours after two thousand Syrian tanks crossed the border with only two brigades (approximately 150 tanks) on the line nearly fifty percent of Israel’s forces had been wiped out.
In the South, all along the Sinai border, hundreds of thousands of Egyptian troops had crossed the Suez canal and the famous Bar-Lev line was in tatters, with only three Israeli tanks trying to stem the tide; it appeared the young State of Israel was about to become a distant memory.
And yet, just a few days later, the Syrian troops were in retreat, Israeli reserve divisions that were finally coming on line were rolling towards Damascus, and the entire Egyptian eighth army was on the verge of being surrounded. How did this happen? What turned things around?
Malcolm Gladwell, in his best selling book The Tipping Point, citing the example of Hush Puppies shoes, which were about to be phased out of production before skyrocketing to becoming the best known shoes in America in the space of a matter of months, suggests that there is a â€˜tipping point’, a series of seemingly insignificant events that combine to turn everything around and change the course of events.
This â€˜tipping point’ is what causes a disease to go from infecting a few scattered victims to becoming a fill fledged epidemic in a matter of days, it is what can turn the entire world economy around in the space of a week, or catapult an unknown artist to become a world-wide sensation in a matter of days.
Very often, the actual moment or series of seemingly unconnected events go un-noticed by everyone, including often even those who are themselves responsible for what subsequently transpires.
The story of Effie Eitam, a Captain in an elite infantry reconnaissance unit on that fateful Yom Kippur afternoon is a case in point.
Eitam was responsible for a small five man recon. unit that was on duty while most of the battalion had actually gone home on leave for Yom Kippur.
By 2:15 that afternoon it was clear Israel was in dire straits and Effie and his small unit were sent north of the main base of Nafach to observe the Syrian forces and hopefully relay information back to base on enemy troop movements.
Division headquarters were desperate for an accurate picture of what was going on, as the scattered and panicked reports coming in over the radio became increasingly desperate.
As the commando unit deployed in the fields of the Northeastern Golan, they were shocked to see over four hundred Syrian tanks heading their way. It took them a minute to realize their eyes were not playing tricks with them and that there were in fact five Syrian brigades heading their way with not a single Israeli tank to stop them.
Being a forward reconnaissance unit, the commandoes only had one portable anti-tank weapon with them and Effie had to decide what to do. On the one hand, it was absurd to imagine that even if they succeeded in taking out one tank, it would make a difference to the course of the war, with hundreds of Syrian tanks only hours away from Haifa and Tel Aviv.
On the other hand, if you are an elite Israeli commando unit, and Syrian tanks are advancing on the towns and villages of your country, how can you not fire the anti-tank weapon you are holding? And then again, firing the weapon would clearly mark their position and probably bring a rain of tank shells down around them…. In the end, with what seemed to him to be no choice, Effie picked the tank with what seemed to have the most antenna’s (signifying a command-tank) and ordered his men to fire the missile.
And inexplicably, as the tank they hit burst into flames, the entire Syrian advance stopped in its tracks. It was only years later, as a young colonel, when he finally had the opportunity to analyze the battle’s recon photos and radio reports, did he discover that he had hit the tank of the forward battalion commander leading the advance, and that the confusion that ensued, and the conviction that they might be headed into an ambush stalled the entire Syrian advance for nearly six critical hours, by which time the first Israeli troops arrived at the front lines…. That single anti-tank shell it seems, may well have been the tipping point in the Yom Kippur war. And even though the road for the IDF was still very much uphill, the point of no return had passed and the momentum switched sides.
Is there always a tipping point? History seems as well to have its tipping points, whether it be the point when industrialization began to set in, or the point at which the Jewish people really began their journey home to the modern reality of a State of Israel and a Jewish army, after two thousand years of wandering the face of the earth.
And what of ourselves? Is there a tipping point of consciousness when we start to â€˜get it’; when we come to an understanding that changes who we are and the way we look at life and allows us to turn our lives around, and become all that we can be?
Hidden in the liturgy of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur may be an allusion to just such a â€˜tipping point’, which is so central to the day and to how we look at life, that it has the capacity to turn everything around, and may well be part of the goal of this entire holiday season.
Of all the prayers of Yom Kippur (and Rosh Hashanah) there is one which is not only central to the day but which the rabbis decided we should actually continue to say year-round, every day, three times a day.
It is the only prayer, and the only instance in the Jewish calendar and one of only two instances on Yom Kippur when we actually prostrate ourselves completely before G-d, bowing and kneeling to the ground in memory of that moment thousands of years ago when the entire Jewish people did actually that, specifically when reciting this prayer in the courtyard of the holy Temple in Jerusalem, on this holy day.
That prayer is known as the Aleinu. It is such an important part of our liturgy that any child who has ever been to a Jewish school or summer camp will be able to sing its familiar tune and often know the words by heart.
Why is this prayer so important and what is its message? The Aleinu actually consists of two paragraphs, composed, according to our tradition over three thousand years ago.
The first paragraph of the prayer , beginning with the words â€˜Aleinu le’shabeach’ or â€˜we must give praise’, was, according to tradition, written by no less than Joshua (Yehoshua Bin- Nun) who composed it as a prayer of thanksgiving when the Jewish people crossed over the Jordan river into the land of Israel. And this makes a lot of sense: after a quarter of a millennium of slavery and wandering, the Jewish people finally leave the desert where they have wandered for forty years and enter the land they will now conquer.
And it makes sense as well that this would be one of the central prayers on Yom Kippur (and Rosh Hashanah). Imagine what it must have been like to cross the Jordan on that incredible day: This was a generation that had grown up on their parents’ stories of Egyptian slavery and two hundred years of unimaginable cruelty and darkness; they were, essentially, the children of Holocaust survivors.
Forced to wander in the desert for nigh on forty years they were finally about to enter the land of Israel. A nation, in the end, is not a nation unless it has a land; it needs a place from whence it can fulfill its mission. Entering the land of Israel then, was the culmination of a four hundred year old dream: the children of Abraham were about to begin the process of fulfilling their purpose to become a light unto the nations; to create a society that could be a beacon for what the world could be like.
No wonder then, that in order to create such an ethical environment, the Canaanite nations, (who had fallen into an abyss of immorality which included child sacrifice, wanton murder and violence, licentious behavior and no discernible moral code) had to either accept the Noachide laws (not to steal, murder etc..) or leave.
And if this (first paragraph of the Aleinu) prayer marked the moment that the Jewish people began to fulfill their potential as a light unto the nations, it makes sense that it would become a central prayer in the Jewish liturgy and of course be a central piece in Judaism’s most holy day: Yom Kippur.
What is challenging however is the second paragraph of this most important prayer, Al Kein Nekaveh.
According to Jewish tradition, this prayer is written by a fellow who most of us have never even heard of. Ask any Jewish (or for that matter, Christian) child who Joshua was and most will know he brought the walls of Jericho tumbling down, and led the Jews into the Promised Land. But who was Achan, to whom Jewish tradition attributes this second paragraph? And why are his words still part of our prayers and central to Yom Kippur over three thousand years later?
More puzzling still is the fact that a closer look at the story of Achan reveals that he was not exactly one of our great heroes; in fact, it appears he wasn’t much more than a small-time thief.
In order to understand this prayer a few words on the background of its author’s story are in order.
When the Jewish people entered the land of Israel in approximately 1300 BCE, they were on a roll. G-d was clearly with them, as witness the miraculous halt of the flow of the Jordan River enabling the Jews to cross into Israel on dry land. And their first battle was clearly a resounding success, again with G-d’s help very much in evidence. Although the Jewish army was commanded to walk round the walls daily, blowing their shofarot (ram’s horns) indicating the willingness of the Jewish people to do their share in a partnership with G-d, it was G-d who brought the walls tumbling down, enabling a miraculous victory over the city without a single Jewish casualty.
So it would seem that it was with a well-deserved air of confidence that the Jews approached their next battle: the conquest of the city of Ai. In fact, the commanders (Joshua Chap. 7) suggested to Joshua that there was really no need to trouble the entire Jewish army of 600,000 soldiers over such a small mission, which resulted in his dispatching only three thousand men to the battle.
Unbeknownst to Joshua, however, one single Jew had committed a serious offense against G-d that would change everything.
After the fall of Jericho (Yericho), G-d commanded that none of the spoils of the battle should be taken and that all should instead be burnt, as a message perhaps, that this war was not being fought for the spoils; this was a mission of principle. And so, all of the loot and spoils of the city of Jericho were set aside and burnt, except for a few items that were stolen by our own Achan.
As such, what was supposed to have been another resounding military success quickly turned into a disaster. The Jewish soldiers were forced to flee before the men of Ai, and 36 Israeli soldiers (putting aside for the moment Midrashic allegoric interpretations) were killed in battle. Suggests the Bible, (Joshua Chap. 7) â€œthe hearts of the children of Israel were melted like water.â€ In other words, the Jews lost their heart, and the battle was lost. Indeed the entire magnificent journey of the Jewish people came to a sudden, grinding halt.
And most interesting is Joshua’s reaction. After all, if your men were handed a significant (their first) defeat in battle, and you had an army of 600,000 men waiting in the wings, what would you do? Obviously you would muster the entire army to arms and by sheer weight of numbers simply overwhelm the upstart Canaanites of the city of Ai.
And yet, what is Joshua’s reaction? He falls to the ground in agony, throwing dirt (symbolizing humility…) on his head and crying out to G-d: â€˜If for this you brought us across the Jordan, would that we might never have crossed’! In other words, if this is what G- d is allowing, better that the Jewish people should never have crossed the Jordan River!
This, of course is nothing short of astounding! One small military setback and the Commander in Chief is rolling around in the dirt? He didn’t expect setbacks? After all, that is the nature of military campaigns, as the saying goesâ€: â€˜you win some, you lose some’, right? So why is Joshua so upset that it would have been better if the Jews had stayed in the desert? And why is all this happening simply because one Jew stole a few items? The entire military campaign stops because one guy couldn’t resist a golden tureen? Because of this one individual’s mistake G-d himself (see Joshua Chap. 7) G-d himself is willing to abandon the Jewish people??
And even stranger is the consequence of this sad affair: Joshua asks G-d to recount who has stolen from the forbidden loot but G-d refuses to tell him, commanding Joshua instead to draw lots tribe by tribe from amongst the entire Jewish people. And indeed,all the tribes are assembled, and the lots are drawn. Then the verses tell us on which tribe â€œ G-d determines (or traps: vayilaked…)â€ for the lot to fall, and then the families of that tribe are called forth, at which point the verses tell us on which family G-d determines for the lot to fall, and then on to the individual household, until the lot finally falls on Achan who is thus declared guilty.
But if G-d determines on whom the lot should fall (after all, if G-d runs the world there are no accidents…) then why doesn’t G-d just tell Joshua who the culprit is in the first place? And finally, once Achan is then sentenced to death, on his way to his death, Joshua, in a beautiful moment, calls him his son (B’ni, My son; because no matter what someone has done, a true educator and leader will still always love his students….) and affords him the opportunity to do viduy, to confess his mistake. And it is in that moment when Achan owns up to his mistake, literally on the way to his death, that he composes the â€œAl Kein Nekavehâ€ prayer.
So what is going on? Why is Achan’s mistake so significant that it delays the conquest of the land of Israel and why is this prayer so central to Judaism that it is recited on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur and indeed every day of the year?
Hidden in this story is an idea so central to whom we are and all that Judaism dreams of, that it may well form the essence of the mission of the Jewish people.
Perhaps the reason the entire Jewish people are assembled when the lots are drawn is in order to teach us that when one Jew makes a mistake, it is the mistake of us all. And when one Jew suffers, we all suffer. And just as, three thousand years ago, if one Jew could steal from the spoils then really the entire Jewish people was responsible, today as well, if one Jew can steal, or lie, or even be accused of sexual harassment, then all of us, to some degree are responsible for allowing such an experience to come to be.
But more, what was so terrible about Achan’s sin itself? You see, when the Jewish people crossed over the Jordan into the land of Israel they carried with them a message that the world desperately needed to hear, which was epitomized in the commandment not to take from the spoils. Most people conquer land to demonstrate that it is theirs. But the Jewish people conquered a land to demonstrate that it was not theirs. Leaving the dark world of Egypt behind , where â€˜might makes right’ and â€˜he who has the most toys wins’, they were coming from forty years in the desert: the place which is really no place. This generation grew up as nomads in the desert, where no one owns any land because the land is un-ownable. And from that experience they came to the land of Israel to create a society that was based on the idea that we don’t really own anything in this world. Everything we have and even the lives we live are a gift; they are not ours; to us merely falls the challenge of what to do with them and whether we can make them into a vehicle for bringing light into the world.
Every thing we think we own, every relationship we think we have, and even every achievement we think we have accomplished are really gifts from G-d, which come with an unwritten contract that calls upon us to appreciate these gifts and choose the utilize them in search of building a better world.
Thus all the loot of Jericho was to be destroyed so the world would understand that we weren’t conquering Jericho to own anything, but only to rebuild something: a world that would hopefully be better this time around.
And all of this came to a grinding halt when one Jew, Achan, stole a few small things. Because in that moment he was declaring that things in this world can really be â€˜mine’, in which case, at least in that instant for Achan, G-d ceased to exist .
This is such a critical idea. People sometimes ask how a â€˜religious’ person could steal or behave unethically, but in reality the question is all wrong, because if a person can steal then in that moment he is an atheist, because if G-d really runs the world how could you steal? How absurd is that! And if a person can behave unethically to someone else, then in that moment they don’t really believe in G-d, because if they did, they could never behave that way to anther human being created in the image of G-d….
This then was the mistake of Achan, and the realization he came to in the final moments of his life. When he â€˜came back to his sense’ and realized the enormity of the consequences of his mistake, the â€˜Al Kein’ prayer burst forth from the purest place in his heart. (And indeed, the Mishna in Sanhedrin 43b suggests that when a person condemned to death confesses not 10 meters from the place of his execution (i.e. even a murderer) he is guarantee a portion in the world to come, because in that moment he has transformed his mistake into the opportunity of a lesson for the entire world, which is the essence of teshuva (repentance) and what Yom Kippur is really all about.
And all of this is essentially, the tipping point Judaism offers to each and every one of us. If we really understood that this life is a gift, along with everything in it, and that if G-d created anything then G-d created everything, oh, what a different world it would be.
And this is why this prayer is such a central part of our liturgy every day of the year. (Note, whereas the first paragraph, written by Joshua is in the present tense, the second paragraph, written by Achan, speaks of the hope for a future time when the reality he had undone with his mistake would one day be corrected….)
May Hashem bless all of us to succeed this year in seeing the world in a different light, and especially in learning to see a little piece of G-d, everywhere we look and in everyone we meet.
Best wishes for a sweet, happy and healthy New Year full of peace, joy, and fulfillment for all people everywhere.