“The Best Offense…” Parashat Devarim 5777

The first three parshiot in the Book of Devarim recap Am Yisrael’s 40-year sojourn in the desert. The chronology is very messy and certain key events, such as the splitting of the Red Sea, are left out. So there is much to learn from what appears, where it appears, and how it differs from the original in the Books of Shemot, Vayikra, and Bemidbar.

This shiur will take a closer look at the war against the Amorites and Sichon, their king. Here is how Moshe recaps the story in Parashat Devarim [Devarim 2:24-37]: “Hashem told me… ‘Get up and cross the Arnon River. I have delivered into your hand Sichon the Amorite, King of Heshbon, and his land: Begin to possess it and provoke him to war. Today I will begin to put your dread and your fear upon the nations under the entire heaven; they will hear reports of you and shake and be in trepidation because of you.’ I sent messengers from the desert of Kedemot to Sichon, King of Heshbon, with words of peace… [But he was not interested in peace and so we soundly defeated him and took his land].” When compared with the original episode in Parashat Chukat [Bemidbar 21:21-31] some discrepancies stand out:

  1. In Parashat Chukat, Hashem does not tell Moshe to provoke Sichon.
  2. In Parashat Chukat, Hashem does not tell Moshe that today is the day that everyone will begin to fear Am Yisrael.
  3. And if Hashem does tell Moshe to provoke Sichon, at least in Parashat Devarim, why does Moshe send messengers to Sichon with “words of peace”?

While the first two questions seem to be ignored by the commentators, the third one is not. The Ramban suggests that, chronologically, Moshe sent a peace delegation to Sichon before Hashem told him to provoke him. After Hashem’s edict to provoke the Amorites into battle, the delegation was returned home. Rav Kalonymus Kalman Epstein, writing in “Ma’or va’Shemesh”, offers a much more aggressive approach. The Ma’or va’Shemesh equates “peace” with “Torah”. Moshe’s messengers did not come to Sichon to sign a non-belligerence pact. On the contrary: They came to make war. Relying on the Torah as evidence of Hashem’s creation and resultant ownership of the world[1], the rights to the Amorite land were being summarily transferred to Am Yisrael. Thank you for your cooperation!

Before addressing these questions, we must be cognizant of the qualitative difference between the audience in the Book of Devarim and the audience in the rest of the Torah. The audience in Devarim are not erstwhile slaves or wandering nomads. These people stand on the brink of nationhood and the Book of Devarim is their How-To Guide for starting a nation. Moshe is not teaching these people history; he is preparing them for the next phase of their lives[2]. What we need to understand, then, is how Moshe is teaching this lesson.

Rav Zalman Sorotzkin, writing in “Oznayim LaTorah”, does not answer any of our questions, but he answers another question that can give us some traction. Why would the Nations of the World feel that Am Yisrael was so weak that Hashem had to promise them that they would begin to be feared? Rav Sorotzkin answers that immediately before the war against the Amorites, Hashem tells Am Yisrael to stand down three consecutive times: Am Yisrael ask to pass through Edom and the Edomites refuse. Instead of waging war, Hashem tells Am Yisrael to take a circuitous route and to bypass Edom. Then Am Yisrael pass by the lands of Amon and then Moab and Hashem tells them not to even think about waging war because we are not destined to inherit their land. According to Halacha, when an event occurs three times it is called a chazakah, meaning that this event is now considered Standard Operating Procedure. After Am Yisrael refuse to wage war three times, they were considered pacifistic, perhaps overly so. So when they met up with the Amorites, Hashem decides to change the Rules of Engagement and to introduce a little belligerence into the equation. This only makes Moshe’s response even more bizarre. Assuming that Moshe sent the peace delegation with Hashem’s blessing, then he is only reinforcing the impression that Am Yisrael are afraid of battle. How do Moshe’s actions elicit fear and dread?

Since 2011 I have been Rafael’s de facto spokesman for Iron Dome. I’ve briefed lawmakers, businessmen and strategists from all around the world. Talking about Iron Dome is easy. Who doesn’t want to hear about a system that saves lives? It’s a much more difficult task to brief a Precision Guided Munition (PGM) that flies over one hundred kilometres into a prechosen window, detonates its 800-pound warhead and takes out fifteen Hezbollah commanders. Saving lives is praiseworthy, taking them is not. Recently, we’ve begun brieifing another system that we make that is also saving lives, but not the same way Iron Dome does. This system is called “Trophy”. Trophy is essentially a miniature Iron Dome for armoured vehicles. When it senses that a weapon is headed for the vehicle being protected, Trophy fires its special sauce at the target and neutralizes it before it impacts. During Operative Protection Edge, Hamas uploaded a video to YouTube showing what it claimed was the destruction of an Israeli tank in a Gazan alley by a Rocket Propelled Grenade (RPG). Rafael took the video, slowed it down, and showed that what had actually happened was that the RPG was defeated by Trophy. We’d like to thank Hamas for some really good PR. But that’s not the end of the story. What happened afterwards was not included in the Hamas video for reasons that will soon become clear: As soon as the threat was detected, Trophy calculated the location of the source of fire and uploaded it to the Army communication network. The tank under fire, along with the tank next to it, quickly swivelled their turrets towards the source of fire, returned fire, and summarily introduced the fellow with the RPG to seventy-two virgins. With Trophy, a tank battalion can now fight with impunity, coaxing the adversary to open fire before neutralizing him. So what kind of weapon is Trophy: offensive or defensive? The line between the two is a blurry one, indeed.

Let’s go back to Moshe and Sichon. Carl von Clausewitz stated that war is the continuation of politics by other means. Conversely, politics is the precursor to war. When Sichon hears Moshe’s request to pass through his land, he refuses to be violated [Devarim 2:32]: “Sichon went forth towards us, he and all his people, to war at Yahtzah”. He sees a weak nation begging a powerful nation for basic rights. This nation, thought Sichon, does not have the stomach to fight, and will be easily defeated. And so he brings his entire army to Yahtzah to quickly finish of the Israelites. What Sichon does not know is that Am Yisrael’s peaceful posture had absolutely nothing to do with their willingness or unwillingness to use overwhelming power to impose their will upon the enemy. When Am Yisrael are given the green light to attack Sichon, they respond with shock and awe and route Sichon’s entire army. With the army out of the way, there is no-one left to fight and the rest of the country is easily captured [Devarim 2:34]: “We conquered all his cities and utterly destroyed every city, the men, women, and the children; we left no survivors”. So what were Moshe’s overtures of peace really meant for? Did he want to come to an agreement with Sichon or did he want to goad him out into the open? Was Moshe’s strategy offensive or defensive, or perhaps a little bit of both? The line between the two is a blurry one, indeed.

The message of the story of Sichon is eternally relevant. The border between offense and defence will always remain murky. Looking back at our PGM, does the fact that it is launched far enough from the target to keep the pilot out of harm’s way, combined with the fact that its pinpoint precision reduces collateral damage to nearly zero, mean that it, saves lives? It is an axiom that war always results in a loss of life. While we must always endeavour to achieve our goals while at the same time minimising the loss of life, minimising the loss of life at the expense of not achieving our goals is a recipe for disaster.


Shabbat Shalom,

Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5777

Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Yechiel ben Shprintza and HaRav Chaim Nosson Eliyahu ben Lana.

[1] See Rashi on Bereishit [1:1].

[2] I heard this innovation many years ago from my friend, Rav Shimon Mandelbaum.

About the Author
Ari Sacher is a Rocket Scientist, and has worked in the design and development of missiles for over twenty-five years. He has briefed hundreds of US Congressmen on Israeli Missile Defense, including three briefings on Capitol Hill at the invitation of House Majority Leader. Ari is a highly requested speaker, enabling even the layman to understand the "rocket science". Ari has also been a scholar in residence in numerous synagogues in the USA, Canada, UK, South Africa, and Australia. He is a riveting speaker, using his experience in the defense industry to explain the Torah in a way that is simultaneously enlightening and entertaining. Ari came on aliya from the USA in 1982. He studied at Yeshivat Kerem B’Yavneh, and then spent seven years studying at the Technion. Since 2001 he has published a weekly parasha shiur that is read around the world. Ari lives in Moreshet in the Western Galil along with his wife and eight children.