Mendel Kalmenson
Mendel Kalmenson

Live like you were dying


Give it all you got

In this week’s Torah portion we encounter a powerful insight into human nature by way of an interesting law related to warfare.

The verse says: “And [the Israelites] warred against Midian, as G-d had commanded Moses.”1

While the Torah does not state explicitly what it was that G-d commanded Moses regarding war, our sages understood this to refer to the following law of combat.

Maimonides explains2: “When laying siege on a city to conquer it, we do not surround it from all four sides, but only from three sides, leaving a way to escape for anyone who wishes to flee for his life. As it is written: “And they warred against Midian, as G-d commanded Moses”; it has been handed down by tradition that this is what G-d had commanded him.”

Nachmanides, in his commentary on the Book of Commandments,3expounds on the above: It is from this commandment that we learn to deal with compassion even with our enemies, even at time of war.5

He then goes on to give a second explanation: “In addition, by giving our enemies a place to flee to, they will not charge at us with as much force.”

The first explanation is ethical, the second is strategic: the former seeks to protects our enemies, the latter is aimed at protecting ourselves.

For if we allow our enemies no escape, we eliminate any chance of their retreat, leaving them with no choice but to fight to the death.

The moment we back our enemies into a corner, the fight is no longer motivated by political or ideological interests, but by existential instincts.

Staring death in the eye, our enemies will fight like their lives depend on it, because they do.

The dynamics of war may suddenly tip in favour of those for whom the fight is not about winning, but surviving.

Fighting from a position of strength and security, then, can sometimes translate into a weakness on the battlefield.

And here we come to a truth that was known to the ancients: sometimes in order to win, you must have everything to lose.

Take Julius Caesar for example, with whom the term “Crossing the Rubicon” is associated.

This phrase is used as a metaphor for deliberately proceeding beyond the point of no return.

It originates with Julius Caesar’s seizure of power in the Roman Republic in 49 BCE. Roman generals were strictly forbidden from bringing their troops into the home territory of the Republic in Italy.

On 10 January, Caesar led his army across the Rubicon River, and crossed into Italy in violation of the law. Upon committing this flagrant act of treason, Julius knew he would be executed if he did not triumph.

Just before crossing the Rubicon Julius is reported to have said, “”Alea iacta est” which means: “The die is cast.”

Just as when one gambles with dice, once the dice have been thrown, all bets are irrevocable, even before the dice have come to rest, so, too, in crossing the Rubicon, Julius cast his die, for better or worse.

And there were those who did more than set an irrevocable process in motion, but deliberately destroyed their physical escape routes in an effort to fight bolder and better.

One such incident took place in the year 1519 BCE, during the Spanish conquest of Mexico. Hernán Cortés, the Spanish commander, scuttled his ships, so that his men would have to conquer or die.

Another such incident took place in 711 BCE, when Muslim forces invaded the Iberian Peninsula. The commander, Tariq ibn Ziyad, ordered his ships to be burned.

Incidentally, this is also where the term “Burning Bridges” comes from, and derives from the command of certain military leaders to burn down a bridge after crossing it during a military campaign, in order to leave their soldiers with no choice but to advance.

Coming back to the Torah portion of the week: In its laws about war the Torah comes to teach us not just how not to lose your life, but, rather, how to live it.

Live your life, the Torah is saying, as fully and intensively as if your life depends on it.

Whatever you commit yourself to in life, do so fully, wholeheartedly, and without reserve.

By creating and maintaining potential escape routes in our jobs and relationships we are setting ourselves up for failure.

I am reminded of a beautiful story told about the Rebbe:

A successful teacher once sought the Rebbe’s advice regarding his next career move. The school where he’d taught for 13 years was opening a second branch in another city, and he’d been offered the principal’s job.

“While I’m comfortably settled in my current job, taking on a more challenging role might be good for me,” the teacher said. He paused, and then ventured:

“Besides, if the new school fails, my current school has promised to hold a teaching position for me, so I’ll always have that to fall back on.”

The Rebbe’s response was candid. “If this new position is attractive because your old job remains available in the event of failure, then you should stay in your old job,” he counseled. “Only commit to the new job if you truly believe that failure is not an option. That mindset will help ensure that you make your new job succeed.”

And the same is true of relationships.

If you enter a relationship having set a number of potential exit strategies in place, you have, by definition, undermined the chances of its survival.

For at the first hint of challenge or the need to compromise, both part and parcel of any normal relationship, you will avail yourself of the escape routes you have created.

There is nothing that corrodes unconditional commitment – which is essential to any relationship that demands more give than take at times – like a break clause.

And so by creating a contingency plan for yourself should the relationship fail, you have inadvertently contributed to its demise.

One can hardly enter a relationship fully, and unequivocally, if one has already planned how to get out of it.

I find it fascinating that marriage used to be called wedlock, which conveys a seemingly outdated approach to marriage where both partners are completely locked into their relationship through irrevocable bonds of commitment and love.

And while I understand that there are times when the key to that lock needs to be retrieved to unlock and undo an unhealthy marriage where their is abuse and neglect, G-d forbid, it strikes me that too many of todays marriages can better be compared to relationships where the lock is left open to begin with…

There are certainly other contributing factors to the breakdown of relationships and the alarming rate of failed marriages, like an increase in self-centeredness, but undoubtedly if we would “burn our escape vehicles” when entering serious relationships, they would be deeper, stronger, and more lasting.

In a era where technology is focused on creating more ways to allow us to invest less of ourselves into whatever we are doing and whoever we are

interacting with, we need to remember that, when to comes to relationships at least, less is not always more.

Numbers, 31:7 Matos: Burn your bridges!

Mishneh Torah, Laws of Kings and their Wars 6:7

3 Hasagot Haramban L’sefer Hamitzvot, positive commandment

About the Author
Rabbi Mendel Kalmenson is the rabbi of Beit Baruch and executive director of Chabad of Belgravia, London, where he lives with his wife, Chana, and children. Mendel was an editor at the Judaism Website—, and is also the author of the popular books Seeds of Wisdom, A Time to Heal, and Positivity Bias, and an upcoming book titled "People of the Word: 5o words that shaped Jewish thought"
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