Seth D Gordon

B-chukotai and Israel’s Numbers

“You shall give chase to your enemies, and they shall fall before you by the sword: Five of you shall give chase to a hundred, and a hundred of you shall give chase to ten thousand …” (Leviticus 26:7-8) God promises a blessing for faithful national obedience, but curiously, the ratios are not symmetrical. 1:20 swells to 1:1000.

In my class on Israel’s history this week, we learned about the events preceding the Yom Kippur War — October 6, 1973. Hamas’ Massacre took place on October 7, 2023, exactly 50 years and one day later. There are numerous parallels. One difference, however, is that in 1973 Israel encountered numerically overwhelming forces, which serves as a historical commentary on our verses.

Even though Israel had decisively defeated mobilized Arab armies in just six days six years earlier in 1967, supported by the USSR, Syria aggressively rearmed. Soviet leaders sent Syria 300 new tanks, 300 MiG-21 fighter planes, and hundreds of late-model SAM-6 (surface-to-air) missiles. According to Howard Morely Sachar’s superb “A History of Israel,” “Syria now became the most heavily armed nation per capita in the Arab world.” But it was not Syria alone that Israel would battle. 

Throughout the summer of 1973, in order to thwart and cripple Israel’s vaunted air force, Soviet leaders also sent massive new sophisticated weapons systems to Egypt, particularly SAMs. Sachar provides specific numbers: By the eve of the Yom ha-Kippurim War, the Egyptians possessed 2,000 tanks of the latest Soviet model, the Syrians 1,200; Israel’s armored force was slightly more than half — 1,700 tanks, a number of them obsolete Super-Shermans. Between them, the Egyptians and Syrians possessed 3,300 guns of all varieties, four times the quantity of Israeli artillery. Egyptian and Syrian forces numbered 750,000 men, three times Israel’s mobilized forces. The ratio is not quite the ones promised in our parashah, but the enemy’s forces were quantitatively superior nonetheless. 

The Yom Kippur attack caught Israel off guard. There were many reasons why Israel was surprised in 1973, why they did not mobilize and, when they knew more, why they did not strike pre-emptively. Among them was that President Nixon, advised by Kissinger, explicitly warned Israel not to attack, just as President Johnson warned Israel in 1967. The rabbis teach “ma’aseh avot siman l-vanim” — “the deeds of the ancestors are a sign to their descendants” — a rabbinic version of “history repeats itself.” 

Anwar Sadat drove Syria and Egypt’s coordinated attack. In the first three days, the numerically superior Syrian and Egyptian ground forces (from the northeast and from the southwest respectively) began to penetrate Israel’s 1967 borders and seemed unstoppable; the Jewish state was nearly vanquished. Despite heavy fighting on two fronts, massive Israeli casualties, facing overwhelming numbers in weapons and manpower, the IDF eventually turned the tide, and would so dominate that even Damascus and Cairo were threatened. Numbers alone do not tell the story.  

Skeptics of God, divine intervention, and biblical warnings and promises, can make their case as to why they cannot, or will not, believe. As people of science, they confidently proclaim that they look to facts and numbers. And, the broad age-old question remains unresolved: Why do the faithful and the innocent suffer and die? Good people died in 1967 and 1973 and 2023, and … 

But even those of Torah faith can legitimately question the application of this week’s verses. The Torah’s promised blessings are a reward for faithful observance; surely the Jewish people cannot claim that they have fulfilled their part.   Sometimes religious answers are incomplete. 

Still, conventional rational, scientific, mathematical answers are no less inadequate in explaining how Israel could have prevailed in 1973, or how it did so in 1967, or in 1948 — when the number of Jewish defenders of Israel was proportionally far fewer and their weaponry was even more inferior. Rational calculating experts predicted that the Jews would never be able to withstand the onslaught of six Arab armies on May 14, 1948. Even Israeli leadership was at best only hopeful, at worst, somber and pessimistic. The US UN Ambassador sought to delay Israel’s formal declaration of independence, and Ben-Gurion himself considered it.  

How God works is beyond me. But numbers, indeed science in general, or more accurately the interpretation of science, is clearly not everything. The brief history of modern Israel, let alone other events, proves it.  

We might also consider Nehama Leibovitz’s deeper relevant rational explanation of the asymmetrical ratio in our verse influenced by our Sages: “the vitality, influence, and virtue of the few faithful does not increase in strict mathematical proportion to their numbers, but gains momentum out of all proportion to the increase … Our Sages have taught us that the addition of one individual swells the power of the faithful many more times his quantitative worth.” 

We all should concede, at least, that numbers alone, and slavish, narrow interpretations of them, are often inadequate in explaining the past or predicting the future. On the other hand, they cannot be dismissed as irrelevant. Intellectual and spiritual integrity requires us to engage in both, even if we cannot precisely and perfectly figure it out.

Finally, our challenge is not only about military numbers. In a few weeks, when we read Parashat Shelach Lecha, we encounter numbers in its political dimension. Ten of twelve scouts, and their entire generation, choose to remain in the wilderness rather than embrace faith to enter the Promised Land. They are afraid to face the enemy; they opt to remain stuck, without God, in the wilderness, where they will perish. Truth and faith do not yield to numbers alone.

The political numbers are, as they have been, allied against us. The representatives of the United Regimes do not support Israel’s legitimate self-defense, to eradicate or degrade, as much as possible. Rather they invoke numbers — distorted ones at that — to shield and legitimize an enemy that repeatedly vows to eliminate the Jewish state, that acts on it, that celebrates the slaughter of infants and families and the rape of women. Numbers, again, are not the whole story. Mindlessly surrendering to numbers means surrendering, sacrificing truth and morality, abandoning faith, and ignoring history.

About the Author
Rabbi Seth D Gordon received his rabbinic s'michah from Rav David Weiss Halivini from the UTJ and has served congregations in Annapolis, Maryland, Bethpage, New York, and St Louis, Missouri. His emphasis is Jewish education. Rabbi Gordon has worked across the board, co-founding a day school in Annapolis, and founded the now defunct African American-Jewish coalition of Anne Arundel County. He also taught in a Jewish Day School on Long Island, NY. He serves on the executive board of the UTJ and is the past Chairman of MORASHAH, its rabbinical organization. He and his wife are blessed with five children and eleven grandchildren; two of their sons, their wives, and five of their grandchildren live in Israel.
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