Gratitude and Humility
A Theological Response to the Yom Kippur War
RABBI MOSHE ZVI NERIA זצ”ל
In the aftermath of the Yom Kippur War, the nation was deeply traumatized. How could the entire military and political establishment have failed to detect the Arab attack? How could a nation that crushed its enemies during the Six-Day War come so dangerously close to defeat? In this essay, published in a small pamphlet titled Milchemet Yerach HaEitanim (1974), Rabbi Moshe Zvi Neria zt”l addressed these painful questions with both clarity of vision and great faith.
With the attribute of mercy
“On the tenth day of the seventh month,” on Yom Kippur, the day on which the “nation of the G-d of Avraham” stands in fasting and prayer before its Creator, Arab nations unsheathed their swords – with the full support of the evil nation of heresy, the Soviet Union – against the nation of G-d in their Land. The goal of this war was not simply to reclaim territories which they had never developed or settled when they were under Arab control, but primarily to destroy the people of Israel who had returned to their homeland, to the chosen Land G-d had sworn to give to their forefathers. The attackers on this holy day planned not only a war of soldiers, but the slaughter of multitudes.
The murderous Kelt missile launched from Egypt to the heart of Tel Aviv and the Prog missiles launched from Syria into the Jezreel Valley had one goal – to murder and to destroy. Their intent was to destroy young and old, women and children, all at once.
Had these missiles reached their targets, we would have had, G-d forbid, tens of thousands of civilian casualties in this war. A holocaust of destruction was about to descend like a thunderbolt upon an innocent nation. However, the hateful goal of these evil doers, to maliciously harm G-d’s people on their holiest day and to desecrate the holy day, the day of Am Yisrael’s uniqueness and unity, backfired upon them and foiled their plot of mass murder.
The overwhelming attribute of mercy that defines that day – “As an eagle that stirs up her nest, hovering over her young” (Devarim 32:11) – was miraculously revealed that day, and the shield of salvation – “‘Hashem is my light,’ ‘ה’ אוֹרִי,’ ‘on Rosh Hashanah,’ ‘And my salvation,’ ‘וְיִשְׁעִי’ ‘on Yom Kippur’” (Vayikra Rabbah 21:1) – protected the cities and towns of Eretz Yisrael from all of these direct attacks. The murderous missiles from Syria did not reach their target, most of them hitting trees and rocks, and the missile launched from Egypt to Tel Aviv was tracked and destroyed while still in the air, at the very last moment.
Even the enemy’s surprise attack on Yom Kippur achieved the opposite of its intended goal: because the nation was gathered in synagogues, the IDF was able to quickly call up reserve troops, and the empty roads enabled the army to transport the soldiers more quickly to the front. Even more importantly, the experience of the lofty holiness of the day strengthened the morale of the soldiers, and the timing of this milchemet mitzvah (obligatory war), forced upon them in the midst of the fast, contributed greatly to their spiritual readiness to fight with courage and bravery, with attachment to Hashem and with self-sacrifice, with faith and trust.
Like the sorcerers of Pharaoh in their time, our enemies saw but did not understand what they saw. Their evil eye saw a nation cut off from the world, gathered in synagogues, wrapped in their tallitot and their fast, and absorbed in their prayers, and they thought: “here is the perfect time to confuse them and attack them!” However, this evil eye, insolent towards Heaven, did not see the eye from above – the “eye of Hashem is toward them that fear Him, toward them that wait for His mercy” (Tehillim 33:18) – the perceptive eye, vigilant and watchful, seeing men, nations, and all the inhabitants of this world.
Those who plotted murder did not know nor understand that “days have been formed and one of them is His” (Tehillim 139:16), that Yom Kippur is the special day of the Creator of the world and man, the day He put our first forefather through the test of Akeidat Yitzchak (which established the nature of the Jews… who are ready to sacrifice their lives to sanctify the name of G-d), the day He revealed the thirteen attributes of mercy to our faithful shepherd, the day He gave the second set of tablets to Israel, and the day on which He said to Moshe Rabbeinu: “Behold, I make a covenant; before all your people I will do marvels, such as have not been wrought in all the earth, nor in any nation” (Shemot 34:10), a covenant for this people that guarantees they will not be destroyed – “No weapon that is formed against you shall prosper” (Yishayahu 54:17).
On this holy day the nation of G-d was lifted up, the people near unto Him, and they merited holiness and purity – before Hashem you shall be purified – and woe to them who impinge upon the awesome holiness of the day, and woe to them who attempt to desecrate “Israel, Hashem’s holy portion” (Yirmiyahu 2:3).
We have a tradition: Akeidat Yitzchak took place on Yom Kippur, at the time of the Mincha prayer. It was during those hours that extraordinary young men bound themselves in a war of self-sacrifice. They went up to Heaven in flames, and in the merit of their binding and sacrifice, the rest of us remain alive and well.
The war that broke on Yom Kippur continued and became the war of יֶרַח הָאֵתָנִים (Melachim I 8:2), the month of Tishrei which is “אֵיתָן בְּמִצְווֹת,” “strong in mitzvot” (Rosh Hashanah 11a). After the initial failures, Israel’s inner spiritual strength was revealed, its fighting strength and courage. And with great power and wisdom, Israel defeated its enemies and they were turned back. “The right hand of the L-rd is exalted; the right hand of the L-rd deals valiantly” (Tehillim 118:16).
“The wicked initiated war… to slay those who walk on a straight path. Their sword shall enter their heart, and their bows shall be broken. The few of the righteous are better than the multitude of many wicked men… Hashem supports the righteous!” (Tehillim 37:14–17).
Reflection and humility
“What is our strength, what is our might?… The wise as if they were without knowledge? And men of understanding as if they were devoid of intelligence?”
A great wonder plagues our thoughts: How could the “wise and understanding nation,” the glorious Israeli Defense Forces and our sophisticated intelligence services, the finest and sharpest minds, have become people who “have eyes but do not see and ears but do not hear?” How could such wise and experienced people have failed to see the enemy gathering at the gates, mobilizing large armies and preparing for war with terrible weapons? How could we have closed our eyes?
The answer is that this was not the sin, but the punishment! “For Hashem has poured out upon you the spirit of deep sleep, and has closed your eyes” (Yishayahu 29:10). The failures were so incomprehensible and so widespread among so many people, it is difficult to see this as an individual sin, as the responsibility of one person and not another.
It is shortsightedness to view the failures at the sin of individuals. Rather, we must understand that the sins and mistakes of individuals led to a punishment of the nation; that the sins of man led to punishment at the hands of Heaven…
The painful vision of Yishayahu has been fulfilled through us: “the wisdom of His wise men shall be lost, and the understanding of His geniuses shall be hidden” (Yishayahu 29:14). As the Sages have said: “When the shepherd is angry at his flock he blinds the eyes of the sheep that walks at the front of the flock” (Bava Kama 52a).
After the Six-Day War, when G-d’s hand and glorious arm were revealed before His nation and portion, there were stubborn people who insisted that it was their hands that accomplished these miracles and their arms that saved our people. They repeated, over and over again: “Our wisdom, our understanding, our strength, our diligence, our planning and our vigilance protected us.” “And G-d does not go forth with our armies” (Tehillim 60:12).
The disastrous neglect leading up to the Yom Kippur War, the incomprehensible mistakes, the utter blindness to the enemy’s movements – all this must prove to our wise people and our experts that without the help of G-d there is no value to wisdom and understanding, to strength and might – “Let not the wise man boast of his wisdom, nor the strong man boast of his strength” (Yirmiyahu 9:22).
The most powerful army and the most courageous soldier require help from above; “if Hashem will not guard a city, [its] watcher keeps his vigil in vain” (Tehillim 127:1). “And the stout-hearted among the mighty shall flee naked on that day” (Amos 2:16).
Therefore, not only do we need a commission of inquiry to investigate the mistakes that were made, a commission that will focus on particular people and definite facts, but we also need a general commission for the entire nation, for discussion and soul searching. “Let us search and examine our ways” (Eicha 3:40). Let us examine the ways of the entire nation and see how far it has become distanced from itself, how far it has turned away from its essence, its identity, the generations that came before it and the great moments when it became a nation, which have sustained the nation and brought it to this time.
“When they have made an end of breaking in pieces the power of the holy people, all these things shall be finished” (Daniel 12:7). Rashi explains this cryptic verse to mean: “When the uprightness and the strength of Israel’s hand is consumed… their suffering will end and the Mashiach will come.” This means that when their arrogance and braggadocio will come to an end, when the people no longer feel that they are superior because of their physical strength, then the sufferings which came to return the nation to clear thinking and to faith will end. “The salvation of man is futile; through G-d we shall gather might, and He will trample our adversaries” (Tehillim 60:13–14). And then the light of redemption will shine upon us, the light of Mashiach, “And all the earth shall know that Israel has a G-d, and all this assembly shall know that not with sword and javelin does Hashem save” (Shmuel I 17:46–47).
● Translated by Rabbi Elie Mischel.