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A German general in World War I reportedly described the British army as “lions led by donkeys.” Although the provenance of this phrase is suspect, and its accuracy debated by historians, for a variety of reasons, the description has stuck. This is because the British generals continually sent their soldiers bravely “over the top” of the trenches and marched them into the waiting machine guns of the German soldiers. The worst example of this was July 1, 1916 – the first day of the Battle of the Somme. By day’s end the British suffered nearly 60,000 casualties, including close to 20,000 fatalities.

The commander of British forces at the Somme (and for the duration of the war) was General Douglas Haig. An experienced cavalry officer, Haig was trained in the colonial wars. Like generals on both sides of the war, he was not prepared for the magnitude and technological tempo of what became known as the Great War. He believed the way to win the war was through attrition – bleeding the other army faster and in greater quantity than they could bleed yours. In fact, just prior to the Battle of the Somme, Haig wrote the following: “The nation must be taught to bear losses. No amount of skill on the part of the commentators, no training, however good, no superiority of arms and ammunition, however great, will enable victories to be won without the sacrifice of men. The nation must be prepared to see heavy casualty lists…three years of war and the loss of one-tenth of Britain’s men is not too great a price to pay.”

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It is little wonder than that many people viewed Haig and other generals like him as heartless butchers. In fairness, over the past twenty years, historians have taken a somewhat more balanced view. They now believe that Haig did innovate as the war progressed. All sides had to learn on the fly and the British casualty rates were no higher than the other armies and in some cases lower. In addition, Haig led the British army in the summer and fall of 1918 to a string of victories, culminating in German surrender.

However, battles like the ones at Somme, Vimy Ridge, Passchendaele, and Cambrai indicate that the British high command kept using the same old tactics, despite high costs and a lack of strategic success. The military leadership might have realized changes needed to be made, but they continued to sacrifice their soldiers during the learning curve. It is perhaps this fact that is most unforgivable.

Leaders often find themselves in situations they were not trained for. The mistakes made in their initial responses can be understood, to some degree, as a result. However, failure to learn and adapt is not acceptable. This thought helps us understand a comment of the Rashbam at the end of this week’s parsha.

At the conclusion of the plague of hail, the Torah states (9:34): “And Pharaoh saw that the rain, hail and thunder ceased; and he continued (vayosef) to sin, and he hardened his heart, he and his servants.” Based on the word vayosef, he continued (to sin), the Rashbam explains that the Torah is teaching us that Pharaoh added a new level to his sinfulness. Up until the plague of hail Pharaoh sinned unintentionally. He had not realized he was doing something wrong and, therefore, had not confessed his own guilt or accepted full responsibility. But in verse 27 Pharaoh finally admitted to Moshe that he and his people were guilty. In light of this confession, Pharaoh could no longer claim to be an unintentional sinner. Thus, the Rashbam explains, his continuing to sin following the cessation of the hail transformed his actions into intentional ones.

Pharaoh’s major sin, like the generals of World War I, was that he persisted in pursuing a particular strategy despite seeing that not only was it not working, but that it was counter-productive. Pharaoh failed as a leader of his people not because he made a mistake, but because he kept making the same mistake. This begs the question: Why did Pharaoh continue his oppressive policy despite his previous admission of guilt and his witnessing of G-d’s power and endorsement of Moshe’s mission?

Rav Zalman Sorotskin, in his commentary Oznaim L’Torah, suggests an insightful explanation. One of the most pernicious, cognitive biases affecting leaders is confirmation bias and its inverse disconfirmation bias. Simply defined, this means that people believe and give value to evidence that supports their already-developed opinions, and dismiss non-supporting evidence. Pharaoh wanted to keep the Israelites as slaves. Thus, he was open to all evidence that would support this desire. Rav Sorotskin argues that Pharaoh had only asked Moshe to stop the hail and thunder, but not the rain. Yet the Torah states that the rain stopped as well. Pharaoh thought that just as the cessation of the rain was not a function of Moshe’s prayers, the stopping of the hail and thunder wasn’t as well. Pharaoh was looking for any sign that supported his continuing as before.

Regrettably, failed leaders throughout history have fallen victim to similar biases. The generals of World War I were not oblivious to the many casualties. They just could not accept that their strategy was responsible. They managed to attribute each failure and setback to other variables. This provided a mindset that allowed them to believe that success would come next time. Unfortunately, when leaders don’t defend against their cognitive biases it is their followers who pay the price. Successful leaders, like Moshe, constantly look inward, question their own assumptions and accept full responsibility. Lions deserve to be led by lions.

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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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