Though the ancient Greek king of Epirus is not familiar to most people, he has bequeathed us the concept of the Pyrrhic victory. In 280 BCE Pyrrhus defeated the Romans at the battle of Heraclea. However, despite his military victory, Pyrrhus realized that the high level of casualties he suffered was unsustainable. Although the Romans suffered greatly as well, they were in a much better position to replace their lost troops. When he realized it, Pyrrhus uttered to those near him, “One more such victory and we will be totally ruined.” A Pyrrhic victory is one whose benefit is fleeting and in the end ruins the victor.
One of history’s most pronounced examples of such a victory is Napoleon’s invasion of Russia and conquest of Moscow. In June 1812 Napoleon invaded Russia in response to Czar Alexander I’s change in policy toward Great Britain. Napoleon’s Grande Armee originally numbered somewhere between 400,000 to 600,000 soldiers. The Russian army kept moving backward avoiding the great pitched battle Napoleon so desperately wanted. Finally, on September 7, 1812 the French and Russian armies confronted each other at Borodino. By this time the French had already lost many soldiers. The battle proved to be horrific in terms of human cost – Napoleon lost between 30,000 and 40,000 men. By day’s end, however, Napoleon was victorious.
He marched to Moscow unopposed, entering the city on September 14 and expecting the Czar to surrender forthwith. But to his surprise he found a near-empty city. Later that night the city was set on fire, further hurting Napoleon’s army. While retreating, the Russians had destroyed supplies, and now with much of Moscow burning, the French had little shelter to go with their little food. Napoleon waited a month for a surrender that was never offered. Napoleon finally abandoned Moscow in mid-October and began the journey back to France. By the time his once great army returned home, Napoleon had fewer than 50,000 soldiers. The cost of his victory at Borodino and conquest of Moscow was his army and reputation. Although Napoleon remained in power for several more years, his power had been checked. Following his initial victories in Russia, it was only a matter of time before he was defeated.
The Baalei Mussar constantly warn against unsustainable Pyrrhic victories. It is not about doing the great deed or achieving high standing. It is about sustaining these gains. If such gains are not reinforced, they will not only be ephemeral but will ultimately cause more harm than good as the person who achieved them will eventually fall even further than before.
The Torah, toward the end of this week’s Parsha, describes (24:12) how Moshe ascended the mountain to receive the Torah. It states: “And G-d said to Moshe: Ascend to Me on the mountain and be there and I will give you the stone tablets…” Rashi explains that the words “be there” allude to the forty days that Moshe would spend on the mountain learning. The Seforno also explains that the words “be there” imply that Moshe would be there for a substantial amount of time.
The Kotsker Rebbe, however, sees an additional command hidden in these words. In a certain sense, the Kotsker argues, climbing mountains is easy. Although a mountain climber must exert much effort to succeed in his quest, the mere fact that he has a concrete goal provides the motivation for him to complete his task. But staying on the mountain, beginning a new life in the mountain environment is a different story altogether. Sustaining the heights reached is far more difficult. What is true for physical mountain climbing is true for climbing the mountain of avodat Hashem and spirituality as well. Attaining certain heights and achieving specific goals is relatively easy and doable. The real test is sustaining these gains and building upon them. G-d, accordingly, is encouraging Moshe to not just focus on reaching the top of the spiritual mountain but remaining there as well, thus fully capitalizing on his gains.
The Malbim makes a similar point in his commentary on Tehillim chapter 24. The verse asks: “Who will ascend the mountain of G-d? And who will stand in His holy place?” The Malbim explains that the question “Who will ascend the mountain of G-d?” refers to a person who momentarily reaches spiritual heights. The question “Who will stand in His holy place?” refers to a person who will maintain these spiritual heights permanently. Both the Kotsker and the Malbim underscore the importance of sustaining gains and avoiding spiritual Pyrrhic victories. A spiritual experience that is not sustained will often cause more spiritual damage in the long-run.
Leaders must bear this lesson in mind. Victories and successes are important. But sustaining these successes is even more important. Achieving unsustainable victories is often a waste of resources and effort. Understanding this will alert leaders to pay attention to the often precarious gains achieved and redouble their focus to ensure that these gains become permanent. It is good advice to remember the words of General David Patraeus in his report to Congress regarding the “Surge” in Iraq. He opined that the initial gains were both “fragile and reversible.” Only by realizing the fragile and reversible nature of gains can leaders transform them into the new permanent landscape.
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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