David Sedley
Rabbi, teacher, author, husband, father

Chaotic bad: Parshat Shelach

Joseph II and his soldiers in 1787. (Public Domain/ Wikimedia Commons)
Joseph II and his soldiers in 1787. (Public Domain/ Wikimedia Commons)

Joseph II was Holy Roman Emperor from August 18, 1765, until his death on February 20, 1790 and ruled the Habsburg Empire (Austria). He is considered to be one of the three enlightenment monarchs (along with Catherine the Great of Russia and Frederick the Great of Prussia). He was a supporter of the arts and funded both Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Antonio Salieri, and a young Ludwig van Beethoven was commissioned to write a funeral cantata for him after Joseph’s death.

As an enlightened ruler, Joseph abolished torture, the death penalty, and brutal punishments. He introduced new codes of civil and criminal law. He advocated for equality.

Despite this, he was an unpopular ruler, because of his aggressively tolerant religious reforms. As Holy Roman Emperor he was the guardian of Catholicism, but he strove to weaken the power of the Pope. He banned monastic orders that were not involved in teaching or healing, as he felt they did not contribute to society. He reduced the number of holy days, cut back on expensive churches, and simplified the Mass. He also sold land belonging to monasteries to finance clergymen who would be loyal to the state, rather than to Rome.

His 1781 Patent of Toleration shifted away from the inquisition, and he allowed non-Catholic Christians limited freedom of worship. The following year, with his Edict of Tolerance, he removed restrictions on Jews living in his land. In 1789, he issued a charter of religious tolerance and forced Jews in Galicia to assimilate into society. His legislation was embodied by the statement of Count Stanislas Clermont-Tonnere on December 23, 1789, “Everything must be refused to the Jews as a nation; everything must be granted to them as individuals.”

Another of his reforms was his instruction that all Jews adopt last names, and that rabbis maintain registries of births, marriages and deaths. This was primarily in order to conscript Jews into his army.

The Meeting of Frederick II and Joseph II in Neisse in 1769. (Public Domain/ Wikimedia Commons)

What Joseph really wanted to do was prove himself as a military leader. He both admired and feared Frederick II of Prussia, who had defeated him in Bavaria. Eventually, in order to protect himself from Frederick, Joseph sided with Empress Catherine of Russia, leading to the Austro-Russian Alliance to end her previous Russian-Prussian Alliance. When Joseph made the treaty with Russia, he didn’t imagine it would lead to war, which was good, because Joseph was not as talented a military leader as Frederick.

But he was forced into war. What began as a Russian-Turkish conflict ended up as the ruinously expensive and mostly futile Austro-Turkish war, which lasted from 1788-1791.

When the Ottomans declared war on Russia in August 1787, Joseph felt his alliance with Catherine “obliged him to assist the Russians with his full might… so as not to annoy the [Empress].” But this came at a bad time for Joseph. He was facing threats to the west of his empire, in what is today Belgium, and threats from the Prussians in the north. The war only ended after Joseph’s death, and the resulting economic disaster undid so much of the enlightened, social improvements he had made.

Joseph intended to fight with Catherine against the Turks, but the Russian army was busy in the north dealing with the Swedish. Although Joseph’s army numbered some 80,000 troops, it was made up of soldiers from all the countries under his rule, many of whom could not even communicate with each other with so many languages spoken in the Hapsburg Empire. It included Austrian Germans, Serbs, Croats, Hungarians, Romanians and Italians. Joseph himself led the army, though that only made things worse.

In addition to bad logistics, exhaustion and demoralization, his men were ravaged by an epidemic that hit the country, before they even saw battle.

In September 1788, the Austrian army headed into Ottoman territory. On September 21, they reached the Karánsebes valley, near what is today the city of Caransebeş in Romania.

Koca Yusuf Pasha. (Public Domain/ Wikimedia Commons)

No sooner had they pitched their camp on the banks of the Timis River, when they heard that the Turkish army, commanded by Koca Yusuf Pasha, was nearby, waiting to attack.

It was a dark, moonless, autumnal night. The soldiers were drifting off to sleep, when at midnight they heard gunfire from the other side of the river and people screaming “Turks! Turks!” A commander ordered his men to open fire with cannons. Wherever the soldiers turned all they saw and heard was blood and gunfire.

It was a brutal and bloody battle. Joseph himself charged into the fray, but fell off his horse into the river, and only barely managed to crawl to the safety of a nearby house.

All night long the shots rang out as the men fell dead and wounded. The enemy seemed to have them surrounded. Soldiers jumped into the river or ran off into the night to avoid the carnage.

In the morning, as the sun came up, the survivors saw the grisly scene of some 10,000 dead Austrian soldiers.

But as they looked around by daylight, Joseph’s men failed to find the Turkish army. In fact, Koca Yusuf Pasha’s soldiers were still a couple of days away. The Austrians had spent the night fighting against themselves.

Ottoman Forces advance to Karansebes. (CC BY-SA, Craciun Cristiana/ Wikimedia Commons)

It seems that some of the Hungarian hussar cavalrymen had crossed the river while the rest of the soldiers set up camp. They were looking for the advancing Turks, but instead found Roma, who happily sold them alcohol and offered them women for the night. A couple of hours later, once the Hungarians were fully enjoying themselves, some Romanian soldiers crossed the river. When the Hungarians refused to share their drinks with the Romanians, the two groups began fighting.

One of the Romanians had the bright idea to shout “Turks! Turks!” to scare off the Hungarians. This led a startled soldier to fire his gun.

One of the officers began telling everyone to stop. “Halt! Halt!” he screamed at the top of his lungs. But the soldiers couldn’t understand his German and misheard his yells as “Allah! Allah!” Nobody knew what the Turkish soldiers looked like, but they saw soldiers of every shape and size, wearing different uniforms, and assumed that everyone was the enemy.

And from this, mayhem and carnage ensued, leading to possibly the worst self-inflicted defeat in military history. The next day was spent rounding up the deserters and marching shamefully back to Austrian territory.

The Battle of Karánsebes may be the only time an army lost before the enemy even showed up.

Except that maybe this battle never happened.

The earliest record of this version of the Battle of Karánsebes is from an 1831 when it was published in the Austrian Military Magazine. The best source for the battle is Geschichte Josephs des Zweiten by A. J. Gross-Hoffinger, published in 1843.

So, it was only decades later, after the much hated Joseph was dead. In fact, so was his brother Leopold who replaced him, along with Francis II who succeeded Leopold. This version of events was only written after the office of Holy Roman Emperor was abolished by Napoleon, and the Austrian throne broken apart into many kingdoms.

Contemporary records tell a very different story. The October 1788 edition of The European Magazine, and London Review, Volume 14 records in its Foreign Intelligence the following version:

The last accounts received here from the Imperial army mention that in their march for Illova, in the evening of the 21st of September, two columns crossing each other in the dark and a false alarm of the approach of the enemy gave rise to a confusion in which some corps of Austrian infantry fired at each other and the bat men and servants were struck with such a panic, that, throwing off the loads from their horses and out of the carriages, they fled precipitately, so that many officers lost their baggage and some regiments their field equipage.

The Turks harassed the rear guard but were vigorously repulsed in the attacks they made upon it and obliged to abandon three of their standards. A smart skirmish however took place near Caransebes, win which the Austrians had 150 men killed and wounded and some houses in that town were burnt by the Turks…

On the day preceding the arrival of the army at Carnsebes, a considerable number of lawless Wallachians inhabiting the neighborhood of Lugosch, ran into the town, spreading a false alarm that the enemy were close at their heels. This had the effect they wished for. The army baggage (then at Lugosch) was immediately sent off to Temeswar, when the Wallachians proceeded to pillage whatever they found unguarded and even many of the houses. A military force, however, soon put an end to these enormities.

There are several other contemporary accounts with similar versions of the story. In other words, the entire self-inflicted defeat of the Battle of Karansebes was written not as history, but as a cautionary tale and to mock a long-dead, much hated ruler.

The story is such a good one that it is often quoted whenever articles are written about friendly-fire incidents. And although it is unlikely to be true, it still carries lessons about the dangers of chaos, and the importance of planning and organizing battles (and anything else).

Similarly, we find self-inflicted damage in this week’s Torah reading of Shelach Lecha. I’m not referring to the sin of the spies, though that was certainly pretty bad. But rather, to the incident recorded in the Torah immediately after the sin of the spies.

As punishment for not wanting to go into Israel, the nation is sentenced to remain in the wilderness for a total of 40 years, and all the men aged over 20 will die there. “In this wilderness they will end and there they will die,” (Numbers 14:35).

Immediately afterwards, a group of people decide that they don’t have to wait for permission but will go into Israel straight away. These are the same people who a day earlier were afraid to conquer the land as part of a large nation, with Divine help. Suddenly, they do not want God on their side, nor do they need logistical and military support. Numbers 14:40-45 states:

They rose early in the morning and climbed to the top of the mountain, saying, ‘We will go up to the place of which God spoke, for we have sinned.’ Moses said, ‘Why are you transgressing the word of God? You will not succeed. Do not go up, for God is not in your midst, so that you are not destroyed before your enemies. For Amalek and Canaan are there before you, and you will fall by the sword, because you turned away from God and God will not be with you.’

But they brazenly went up to the top of the mountain, while the Ark of the Covenant and Moses did not leave the midst of the camp. Then Amalek and Canaan, who lived on that mountain, came down and beat them, they destroyed them until Hormah (Destruction).

There are so many strange things about this story. If they were heading to Israel, which mountain did they climb? Why were Amalek and Canaan at the top of the mountain if we learn just a few verses earlier (Numbers 14:25) that “Amalek and Canaan dwelt in on the plain.” And if the sin of the spies was not wanting to go into Israel, surely the greatest repentance is running toward Israel. Why was their repentance not accepted?

Ramban writes, at the beginning of the parsha, that the spies were not sent to check if the land was good, or if they believed the Israelites could conquer it. Rather, they were sent as tactical liaisons, to scout out the land and to look for the enemy’s weak points to shape the strategy of the conquest. He explains that even in the battle to conquer Israel, Moses did not want the nation to rely on miracles, but to plan and prepare for battle.

Similarly, the Ramban points out, 40 years later, Moses later sent spies to scout out Yaazer before attacking it (Numbers 21:32). And Joshua sent two scouts into Israel before crossing the Jordan River to attack Jericho (Joshua 2). Sending the spies wasn’t the sin. It was the report of the spies that led to sin.

But now, in the very next verses, a group of people run off to conquer Israel without any preparation or thought. Without scouts or spies or supplies, with no tactics or strategy. They just run up the hill in the chaos that ensues after the sin of the spies.

The tribes of Amalek and Canaan are not related, and do not live in the same place. Amalek was primarily a nomadic desert tribe, whereas Canaan settled what became the land of Israel. But they were both the bogeymen for the Israelites. Amalek had already attacked them once. Canaan were the strong nation the spies had reported on. Perhaps the Torah is not reporting on who was at the top of the mountain, but who the people feared most would be on the mountain.

Rabbi Zalman Sorotzkin, in Oznaim LaTorah, points out that the word “brazenly” (vayapilu) is explained by several medieval commentaries as “in darkness” (with an aleph instead of an ayin but read the same). He suggests that the soldiers climbed the hill before it got light in order to ambush and surprise the enemy. I would like to suggest that in the darkness and chaos, just like Joseph II’s army, they may have been fighting against themselves.

And in terms of repentance, Seforno writes (verse 41) that this was not repentance. The sin of these men was worse than the sin of the spies, because the spies gave their report because they wanted to stay in the desert and the people believed them because they were both afraid and comfortable where they were. They sinned for their benefit. In this case, there was no benefit. The sin was purely to go against God’s instructions, to provoke Him to anger. And so, they were destroyed.

In fact, how do we even know what became of these men who ran off up the hill? Were the Israelites watching from nearby? If so, why did the entire army not mobilize to help them? But if the brazen men ran off, out of eyesight and were all killed, how would Moses know to write it in the Torah? Perhaps the nation later discovered the site of the battle and used forensics to piece together what happened, but that is not how it seems from the text.

In a few week’s time we will read the parsha of Balak, which takes place almost entirely away from the camp of the Israelites. There is no natural way Moses would have known anything about the plot to curse the Jews or the sacrifices that Balaam offered. So the Talmud stresses (Bava Batra 14b), “Moses wrote his own book and the parsha of Balaam.”

However, regarding the men who ran off up the hill, there is no specific mention of how Moses knew their fate.

Is it possible that the entire story was a prophetic allegory warning of the dangers of chaos and angering God? Perhaps the last word in that section, “Horma” is not a place name, but the punchline of the parable – “destruction.”

If so, it worked. The Israelites waited patiently until their 40 years in the desert were up, and only then made plans to enter Israel. Sure, they argued and fought with Moses and Aharon, and rebelled against God in all sorts of other ways. But the lesson of the men who brazenly ran up the hill, and were destroyed by the bogeymen of Amalek and Canaan, was enough to keep everyone mainly within the confines of the camp.

The story of the self-defeat at the Battle of Karánsebes was likely written to discredit Emperor Joseph long after his death. Perhaps Moses wrote the story of the brazen men to warn of the dangers of chaos and lack of preparation while the rest of the nation was still able to learn from it.

Whether the events really happened or not, there is a clear lesson: If things are too chaotic and unplanned, they will likely not end well. Instead of overcoming our enemies or personal challenges, we may instead be fighting against ourselves or against imagined enemies. Rather than rushing to respond to a crisis, we would do well to first spend time thinking and analyzing, to work out how best to deal with the situation, rather than rushing in without a plan.

My current series on WebYeshiva and is entitled “In Their Time: The Tannaim.” The next class is on June 13th. You can sign up on WebYeshiva. I’ve also started sharing more of my Torah thoughts on Facebook. Follow my page, Rabbi Sedley.

About the Author
David Sedley lives in Jerusalem with his wife and children. He has been at various times a teacher, translator, author, community rabbi, journalist and video producer. He currently teaches online at WebYeshiva. Born and bred in New Zealand, he is usually a Grinch, except when the All Blacks win. And he also plays a loud razzberry-colored electric guitar.
Related Topics
Related Posts