Imprisoned by a “Concept”
Religious Reflections on the Yom Kippur War
BY RABBI DORON PEREZ
The destruction of the third temple
The first 72 hours of the Yom Kippur War was the closest Israel has come, Heaven forbid, to destruction. That Yom Kippur, which fell on Shabbat of October 6th 1973, initiated the most horrifying few days in the country’s history.
At 2pm on the most solemn day of the year, Egypt and Syria attacked simultaneously, catching Israel entirely by surprise. Israel’s Bar Lev defensive line on the Egyptian border in the south, thought to be impregnable, fell within two hours. In the north, hundreds of Syrian tanks were rolling down the Golan Heights in what would become the largest tank battle since World War II. In those terrifying first three days, Israel lost around 1,300 soldiers, half of all Israeli losses in the entire war.
So desperate was the situation that Prime Minister Golda Meir was handed two cyanide tablets on the evening of October 8th, lest, G-d forbid, the State of Israel fall. Defense Minister Moshe Dayan believed that this was, perhaps, the “destruction of the third temple.” He convinced Golda Meir, using the desperate codename ‘Temple,’ to have nuclear warheads loaded onto jet planes at Tel Nof Airbase. If Israel was to fall then so would Cairo and Damascus. Such was the Israeli leadership’s fear of the potential downfall of the Jewish state, only 25 years after its founding.
How could this happen only six years after Israel’s extraordinary victory in the Six-Day War? The 1967 war was one of the most miraculous and shortest in history, with remarkable results for Israel – tripling its size and liberating its ancient and holy city. How could the same Israeli military which mesmerized the entire world fall so far from grace and get caught blindsided, coming within an inch of its destruction so soon thereafter against the very same enemies?
What went wrong?
The Concept – הַקּוֹנְסֶפְּצִיָּה
The failure which led to the surprise attack was a devastating mistake in the realm of thought – a conceptual blunder. It was a mental paradigm embraced and believed in blindly by Israel’s intelligence leadership and hence by Israel’s top military and political brass, a type of conceptual blindness which became known simply as “The Concept.”1 “The Concept” made perfect sense to the leaders of the Israeli and American intelligence community at the time. It went like this: Egypt will not initiate a war until they have the air power to overcome Israel’s air force. Syria will never attack alone unless Egypt attacks as well. Since Egypt clearly does not have the ability to defeat the Israeli Air Force, they definitely won’t attack and therefore neither will Syria. In short, there is no way that Egypt and Syria will initiate a war they cannot win.
General Eli Zeira, head of Aman – Israeli Military Intelligence – was the greatest proponent of “The Concept.” No amount of evidence could convince him otherwise, as the logic of the concept was, so he and others thought, immutable. When the Syrians moved 800 tanks to the border, it was interpreted as a defensive move against a potential Israeli attack. King Hussain’s secret arrival in Tel Aviv on September 25th to warn Prime Minister Meir of an impending Egyptian attack was disregarded as an exaggeration. A huge build-up of Egyptian tanks and troops on the Sinai border was seen as Egypt “flexing muscles.” Reports on October 5th of Russia calling all civilians to leave Syria and Egypt was seen as an overreaction.
It turns out that “The Concept” was already obsolete a full year before war broke out. Egyptian President Sadat had decided that although he did not have the military ability to beat Israel, he was going to attack anyway. And so he began an entire year of planning his surprise attack.2 The Israelis missed all the signs along the way.
Even when there was unequivocal evidence in the early morning hours of October 6th of a certain attack later that day, Israel did not preemptively strike or even call up the military reserves. Although Chief of Staff Dado Elazar was pushing for this, Zeira and American intelligence were still not fully convinced.3
The lesson is clear: once we are convinced of the veracity of our own logic, we can become imprisoned by it. Instead of challenging conceptions, we embrace misconceptions as a truth we cannot transcend.
“The Concept” came crashing down on Yom Kippur, at the climactic moment of the Ten Days of Teshuva. When we examine the process of teshuva, of genuine repentance, it turns out that we must begin by challenging our mental paradigms and premises. If we don’t question our deeply-held beliefs and conceptions, it is difficult to change our actions.
This is exactly the spiritual focus of Rosh Hashanah, the first of the Days of Teshuva. The Hebrew word our Sages have chosen for the New Year is Rosh Hashanah the “head of the year” and not the more obvious term Reishit Hashanah, the “beginning of the year.”4
The reason our Sages picked this specific term of the head is because the head and mind are the keys to understanding the essence of the day.
Rosh Hashanah is a time of deep cognitive reflection, not a time of action. We examine our spiritual and mental paradigms and thought processes in preparation for the year ahead. It’s a time for big picture mind mapping, not for meddling in minutiae or in specific actions. It is for this reason we do not focus whatsoever on individual actions nor any mention of sin or confession throughout the lengthy prayer service. Although part of the essence of teshuva is confession5 – as we do throughout the selichot prayers of penitence and hundreds of times throughout Yom Kippur – we astoundingly do not utter one word of confession on Rosh Hashanah! We dare not get lost in detail, lest we fail to distinguish the forest from the trees. It’s not time “to rearrange deck chairs on the Titanic,” but rather to ensure that we are heading in the right direction. Rosh Hashanah is an intense exercise in systematic strategic spiritual thinking.
It is a time to challenge the very way we see the world. Just as “seeing is believing,” so too “believing is seeing” – what we think and believe causes us to see our reality in a certain way. If we cannot conceive of ourselves differently then we cannot chart a different course of action. How we examine ourselves in thought on Rosh Hashanah will determine the type of atonement in action on Yom Kippur. If we remain trapped in false conceptions, we can never escape the consequences of the erroneous “Concept.”6
Presumptuous and arrogant
Why did Israel fall prey to such a mistaken “Concept”? How did they get it so wrong? The answer it seems lies in two factors: presumptuousness and hubris.
For Israel and the Western mindset, it didn’t make any sense to initiate a war that you can’t win. Yet that was exactly what President Sadat did!
According to Sadat’s wife Jehan, her husband needed a war to restore honor and dignity to Egypt after it had devastatingly lost three major wars to Israel (the War of Independence, Sinai Campaign, and the embarrassment of 1967). Whereas Syria wanted to destroy Israel, as it was in close proximity to Israel’s mainland positioned high up in the Golan Heights, Sadat’s aim was to surprise and humiliate Israel, especially on its holiest day, in order to gain a restitution of honor so as then to negotiate a peace from a position of strength.7
Kissinger summed up the mistaken “Concept” well: “Our notion of rationality did not take into account the possibility of fighting an unwinnable war just to restore self-respect.” This presumption almost cost the Jewish state its very existence.
What causes us to be so pompous so as not to doubt our presumptions?
More often than not, it is hubris and arrogance. We become too full of ourselves. Israel had fallen victim to her own victory of 1967. Israel’s miraculous lightning victory of biblical proportions gave the country’s leadership a feeling of invincibility. Israel believed its military to be brilliant and powerful and the Arabs’ military to be clumsy and weak.8
Instead of exhibiting profound gratitude and humility, the leadership displayed arrogance and forgetfulness of our Heavenly blessings. As Rabbi Norman Lamm reflected regarding the war: “My mind, during this period, inevitably turned to the powerful passage in Devarim 8: “Beware lest you forget the L-rd your G-d… when you have eaten and are full and you say in your heart, ‘My power and the might of my hand have gotten me this success.’” Self confidence morphed into arrogance, and arrogance into unforgivable carelessness.9
Thankfully, the tide of the war turned on both fronts over Sukkot, and the war ended after three weeks of heavy fighting. Despite tragically heavy losses, Israel’s incredible courage and bravery came through. The Yom Kippur War has been described as perhaps the most miraculous of all of Israel’s wars.10
“The Concept” remains an eternal warning to always challenge our thought processes, perspectives and presumptions. It beckons us never to be victims of our victories, to always be grateful in the face of grace, to be unassuming and never pretentious, and to never stand with hubris but always remain humble before G-d.
1 Thus termed by the Agranat Commission, the National Commission of Inquiry set up in the aftermath of the Yom Kippur War to investigate the mistakes in the prelude to the war.
2 Abraham Rabinovich, The Yom Kippur War, 36–37.
3 American pressure on Israel from President Nixon and Secretary of State Kissinger not to preemptively attack was immense. Defense Minister Dayan and Prime Minister Meir decided against a major mobilization or any preemptive strike in order not to be seen as the aggressor, as had happened in 1967, and not to risk losing US support should there be a war. Howard Blum, The Eve of Destruction – the Untold History of the Yom Kippur War, 143–144.
4 Reishit is the obvious word as it is not only the first word in the Torah, Bereishit, but it is also mentioned in Devarim (11:12) as “the beginning of the year, reishit hashanah.” It is from here that the Talmud (Rosh Hashanah 17b) learns the concept of annual judgment on Rosh Hashanah. Nevertheless, our Sages chose Rosh Hashanah as the name of the festival and the talmudic tractate.
5 In his introduction to the Laws of Teshuva, Rambam considers the source of the mitzvah of teshuva to be וִדּוּי – confession.
6 Rabbeinu Tam supports this view of Rosh Hashanah, stating that the world was created in thought in Tishrei and physically in Nissan (Rosh Hashanah 27a). This is how he resolves the rabbinic statements that describe both Tishrei and Nissan as times of creation (Rosh Hashanah 10). First the world was created in thought, through a vision of the world and its ideal potential. Thereafter, in Nissan, it was created in reality. Clearly, the focus of Rosh Hashanah is the realm of thought.
7 Dr Noam Weissman, Unpacking Israeli History Podcast, The Yom Kippur War – A National Catastrophe.
8 Rabinovich, The Yom Kippur War, 6–8.
9 Rabbi Norman Lamm, Remembering the Six-Day War, Tradition 40, 2 (Summer 2007), 7–13. With thanks to Rabbi Aviad Tabory, who quotes this in State of Halakha, 76.
10 Chaim Herzog, Milchemet Yom HaDin, 250.
Rabbi Doron Perez is the Executive Chairman of World Mizrachi.