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Parshat Noach

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Though history offers no hard and fast laws like we find in physics, it does provide us with some guidelines. One of the most important is that when it comes to making plans, “the enemy gets a vote” or as Winston Churchill put it: “However absorbed a commander may be in the elaboration of his own thoughts, it is necessary sometimes to take the enemy into consideration.” All too often leaders make plans that impact other people and assume that all parties involved will behave in accordance with the plan’s expectations. Unfortunately for such leaders they soon find themselves dumbfounded and at a loss when people don’t follow their script.

In the run-up to the June 1942 Battle of Midway, the Japanese navy failed to heed this message and suffered accordingly during the actual battle. The Japanese naval high command – including Admiral Yamamoto, the architect of the Pearl Harbor victory – gathered from May 1-5 to test their plan to capture the strategically located Midway Island. Their primary purpose was to tease out any weaknesses. During the exercises the Japanese officer representing the Americans placed his forces at Midway ahead of the Japanese arrival, thus laying the groundwork for an ambush. At this point the admiral refereeing the exercises intervened and would not allow this scenario to be considered. He argued that it was unlikely that the Americans would consider such an offensive move and therefore it was not worth the time it would take to play it out. The officer playing the American commander objected.  He felt they were underestimating the Americans. These protests fell on deaf ears. Psychologist Gary Klein, in his new book Seeing What Others Don’t: The Remarkable Ways We Gain Insight (2013), describes how, “With Yamamoto looking on approvingly, the Japanese played the war game to the end and concluded that the plan didn’t have any flaws” (p.164).[1]

A month later the Japanese suffered an irreversible defeat at Midway Island. The Americans, after breaking the Japanese code, knew that Midway was the target. Admiral Nimitz sent his fleet to Midway in anticipation of the Japanese attack, thus creating nearly the exact ambush the Japanese officer had suggested gaming. Apparently the Americans were more aggressive than the Japanese thought they could be and did not follow the script the Japanese commanders had intended for them. In short, the Americans got a vote.

While the above example is a military context, this idea holds true in all areas. Leaders can come up with the best plans, but they must take into account how others will react. Likewise, they must consider that nature might not cooperate. And certainly they must never forget that it is Hashem Who has the ultimate vote. This lesson is illustrated in several instances in this week’s parsha.

As the flood is about to begin the Torah describes (7:13) that Noach and his family boarded the ark “b’etzem hayom hazeh” which translates loosely as “on that very day.” Rashi comments that Noach’s neighbors kept telling him he would never be able to use the ark he was building.  They threatened to destroy it if he attempted to board it. By telling us that Noach boarded on that very day, G-d let the people know that their plans to frustrate Noach’s escape would amount to nothing. Apparently Noach’s neighbors forgot that G-d gets the ultimate vote.

A second example can be seen towards the end of the parsha when the people of the valley planned to build a tower to pierce the heavens. After evaluating the situation G-d decided to disperse humankind. To facilitate this dispersal He created different languages. Rashi (11:7) describes the subsequent disintegration of society. The people began building the tower in a cooperative fashion. But when one person asked for a brick the other person brought him mortar instead. The first person became so incensed with the error that he killed his coworker.  The first person never entertained the possibility that perhaps he wasn’t entirely clear. He learned the hard way that when working with others, one must take their possible reactions into account.

A third example can be found in the concluding section of the parsha. Although the Torah relates only the most basic details of Avraham’s journey, Rashi, based on the midrash, fills in the picture. Nimrod, in an effort to rid himself of Avraham’s challenges to his idols and his overall rule, sentenced him to death. We can imagine that Nimrod orchestrated this execution to take place in as public a forum as possible in order to instill fear in all his subjects and dissuade them from any future attempts to rebel. However, Nimrod failed to realize that Avraham got a vote. Avraham refused to be intimidated and pressured into submission. For a tyrant such as Nimrod this must have been quite a shock. In response to Avraham’s defiance Nimrod ordered him thrown into the furnace for what he envisioned was certain death. We can imagine his shock when Avraham was miraculously spared. Nimrod’s rule suffered severe setbacks on that day. Nimrod failed to realize that G-d had the ultimate vote.

Leaders must always remember to take into account how other people might react and that many factors can intervene to affect the outcome of a plan. This does not mean that we should do things haphazardly and hope for the best. Of course we should plan to achieve our goals. But we must realize that things rarely go as planned. We must therefore have a healthy reservoir of flexibility in our toolkit as well. This means both the constant openness to feedback and the wherewithal to adapt our plans as necessary. General Teddy Roosevelt Jr. when informed that he and his soldiers had landed on the wrong beach on D-Day, June 6, 1944, responded simply, “So we’ll start the war from here.”



[1] Klein’s research focuses on those factors which encourage insights as well as those that stifle them. Among the factors that prevent insights from emerging is what is known as “organizational repression” (p.162). The Japanese war game exercise prior to Midway is an example of this phenomenon.

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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