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Nitzavim-Vayeilech

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Peter Drucker famously said, “Long range planning does not deal with future decisions, but with the future of present decisions.” Sadly, history is replete with examples of leaders who have not only ignored this principle, but who have lost focus of their immediate goals. By doing so, they not only fail to think about the second and third layers of effects, but they fail to consider the possibility of unintended consequences.[1]

One of the most painful examples of this is the Treaty of Versailles, signed in 1919 following World War I. While it is unique in many ways, it stands out as a treaty that satisfied no one—including the victors. Among its weaknesses: While it called for harsh measures to be implemented on the defeated, there was no way to effectively enforce treaty violations. It thus generated tremendous ill will, but reaped no benefit. Far from making war obsolete, it contributed greatly to the outbreak of World War II. In fact, one of reasons Hitler was propelled to power was his promise to renounce Germany’s commitment to the treaty.

It is important to note that the Germans did not consider themselves defeated in the conventional understanding of this concept. Its leadership, following the abdication of the Kaiser, believed they were calling for a cease fire based on President Wilson’s Fourteen Points.

One of the treaty’s biggest failings was that the defeated powers were not invited to participate in the conference. They were forced to agree to the treaty’s terms and sign the document after it was a fait accompli. Having no ability to resist, the Germans signed the treaty, but bore resentment from the outset that their voices and concerns were not heard.

Germany, in accordance with Article 231 (known as “The War Guilt Clause”) had to accept full and total responsibility for the outbreak of the war. Historians explain that while Germany certainly had the lion’s share of responsibility, it was far from clear that no other country shared it.

This clause forced Germany to pay an undetermined amount of reparations. While indemnities had been paid by other defeated nations in the past, the nature and scope of this indemnity was not only unprecedented but intentionally designed to keep Germany weak and prevent her from rebounding economically.[2]

Italy, on the victor’s side, was upset because its government joined the war believing it would receive substantial land acquisitions. In actuality it was awarded much less land than anticipated and felt cheated by the process.

Colonial nations in Africa and Asia, who had fought against Germany, believed that they would be granted the right to self-determination. The European states made clear that they had no intention of following through on this promise. Japan, who had fought with the Allies, felt betrayed when the delegates refused to include as part of the treaty the formal declaration of the equality of all races.

Even France was upset because she felt that the treaty wasn’t harsh enough, and Great Britain and the United States would not guarantee that they would come to France’s aid should Germany attack it again.

With all of these resentments, it is little wonder the treaty failed so miserably. The leaders, whose primary goal was to ensure a peaceful international state system, lost sight of the goal and instead promulgated a treaty focused on revenge for past actions – rather than on building a stable and peaceful world order. By failing to think how the respective parties would view and react to the treaty, and by failing to consider possible consequences, the leaders at Versailles unknowingly set the stage for even greater crimes a mere two decades later.

The importance of thinking about the consequences and effects of our decisions and actions is underscored in the following idea based on the juxtaposition of the beginning of Parshat Nitzavim and the end of Parsaht Ki Tavo. Rav Chaim Yaakov Zuckerman, in his compendium Otzar Chaim, quotes a novel explanation in the name of the Yagel Yaakov. The final verse of Parshat Ki Tavo states (29:8): “And you will keep the words of this covenant and observe them so that you will succeed in all that you do.” The Hebrew word for succeed is taskilu which is related to the word seichel, implying a thought process is involved. The beginning of Parshat Nitzavim describes (29:9) Bnei Yisrael standing firm in front of Hashem. The Yagel Yaakov explains that the last verse in Ki Tavo instructs us that in order to succeed we must analyze (taskilu) every action we take in its entirety (i.e “all that you do). This means evaluating our actions not just in terms of their immediate costs and benefits, but also in terms of their long-term effects. If we do this then we will merit, “to stand in front of Hashem today.”

The Chovot HaLevavot, in his discussion of repentance (Shaar HaTeshuvah:3), encourages us to do this based on the Mishnah in Avot (2:1) which instructs us to consider the cost of a mitzvah in light of its future reward and the immediate benefit of a sin against its future cost. Rabbeinu Bachaya exhorts us to constantly take account of our actions and evaluate them in terms of their long range consequences and ramifications. The Mesilat Yesharim (Bimishkal HaChasidut) posits that all acts of piety are judged by their end result, not their immediate one.

While the importance of making decisions by considering their effects and envisioning their unintended consequences is critical for decision-makers, it is no less important for all of us. With Rosh Hashanah quickly approaching it behooves us to not only reflect on our obvious mistakes, but to consider the less obvious ones as well—the ones which seemed like good decisions at the time, but somehow went awry. Were they in fact good decisions that unpredictable circumstances conspired to derail or could we have decided differently and more effectively had we looked a bit further past the clearly visible results? We must then heed the lessons learned and incorporate them in our goals for the upcoming year.

May Hashem grant all of us a healthy and productive year and may we merit hearing speedily in our day the blasts of the Great Shofar.



[1] Tragically not only do leaders fail to think in terms of future ramifications they often misidentify what the critical issues and decision points of the day are. Hockey legend Wayne Gretzky said that the difference between himself and other players is that they focused on skating to where the puck is, whereas he conditioned himself to skate to where the puck was going to be. I believe that history has demonstrated that too often leaders did not skate “to where the puck is” but rather, “to where the puck was.”

[2] Great Britain was concerned with this provision since she relied on Germany as her second most important trading partner after the United States.

About the Author: Rabbi Dr. David Hertzberg is the principal of the Yeshivah of Flatbush Middle Division and is an adjunct assistant professor of History at Touro College.


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