Winning and Losing (Ideas #84)

For the first time in history, the State of Israel has come out of a war that it did not win. This has left us with many scars, not least of which are the scars on our national consciousness.


In the short lifetime of the modern Jewish state, we have become accustomed to winning wars, but not just winning. We have gotten used to victories of an almost biblical style and magnitude – the three major wars fought in Israeli history were waged against much larger armies and highlighted by dramatic turnabouts that seemed to be marked by G-d's blessing over the nascent state.  For most of the religious public, it was taken for granted that G-d was always “on our side.” Even more recently, when Iraq tried to attack Israel in the first Gulf War, there seemed to be a Divine shield protecting Israel from any serious damage. The world had become a great place for the Jews.


In contrast, the war just concluded in Lebanon was a cynic's dream.  Instead of hearing about decisive victories, we heard about ever more casualties, both among our soldiers in Lebanon and among our civilians in the North. It was also more than victory that eluded us, it was also national inspiration. The pragmatism characteristic of the current government is not the stuff that inspires a nation and, predictably, did not provide us with the national vision needed to fight a difficult war. We endured a war our government did not know how to fight and are now stuck with an outcome we still do not know how to accept.  By the time it was over, the whole thing had the feel of a bad dream that one quickly wants to forget.


As our government discusses what type of committees to set up to examine what went wrong, it may be appropriate for religious Jewry to ask the same question on a different level. Though it is presumptuous to think we can provide definitive answers, it remains in order for all of us to do some soul-searching and ask whether something may have gone wrong on the metaphysical level just as much as on the political or military level.


In this vein, I imagine I am not the only Jew who felt frustrated that his prayers did not seem to help the war effort. Before we get too carried away with these thoughts, however, we have to remember that Jewish history has been full of catastrophic events wherein G-d did not intervene to protect His people. Still, even if the history of modern Israel is an anomaly in Jewish history, for most of us alive today, it is experientially all we know. As such, we cannot help but be confounded by the seeming lack of Divine grace in this past war. 


Did G-d really let us down? More likely, it is we who have let Him down. It is well-known that the victories of the Six Day War, which put all of Jerusalem into Jewish hands, sparked many Jews all over the world to bolster their Jewish identity and often, this meant becoming more religious. I am curious as to whether a lightning victory in Lebanon would have led to such a reaction. And if my intuition, that we would not have seen such a reaction, is correct, then perhaps we may have a slightly better perspective of the war from a Divine perspective.


It is perhaps most ironic that during his election campaign, Ehud Olmert explained his disengagement plan to American Jewry by saying that Israelis like himself were tired of continuously fighting wars and winning them. While history has made these words ring ominously prophetic, there is something even more significant about the religious implications of Olmert's words: Winning wars is a blessing from G-d – when a people becomes “tired” of a blessing, it no longer serves much of a point. The Jewish people are blessed with good things in order for them to appreciate G-d and His goodness. When they lack that appreciation, the blessings lose their raison d'etre.


In a similar vein, King Shlomo felt that it was specifically the Jewish people who would be able to understand that G-d does not need to always give us what we want. Rashi (I Kings 8:43) explains that the reason that Shlomo asks G-d to answer Jewish prayers in accordance with the righteousness of their deeds but to listen to gentile prayers irrespective of their deeds, is that the Jews will better be able to internalize G-d's decision when He chooses not to answer their prayers. In our case, it is time to internalize that G-d will not continue to bless us when we have become numb to the Divine favor that has up until now marked the history of Israel.


Whatever G-d's intentions have been in allowing Israel so much success on the battlefield in the past, it is not likely that He wanted us to conclude that He will automatically provide for our victory no matter what. It is critical that we not reduce G-d's favor for the Jewish nation to that of a sports fan for a home team. His favor for us is designed to help us grow closer to Him and become better people, not to pamper us for no good reason.  One historical challenge already described in the Torah is the difficulty in appreciating G-d when times are good.  This is the situation right now – even after the latest war and with all the problems that we have, Jews in Israel enjoy a comfortable lifestyle not prevalent in previous generations. In the context of Jewish history, Jews have almost never had it so good. That being the case, the recent war in Lebanon may be reminding us of what is in store for us if we do not sufficiently appreciate the blessings that G-d has given to His people.