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July 28, 2015 / 12 Av, 5775
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Parshat Vayeishev

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Most people remember where they were when they heard the news that Osama Bin Laden had been killed and justice delivered. Many books have already been written about the ten-year search for him, the decision to launch the mission and the actual attack on his compound in Abbottabad. While every aspect of this story is fascinating, I would like to focus on one specific area: Why were the Navy SEALs chosen to execute the mission? When the mission was being planned it was hardly a done deal that the SEALs would be selected as opposed to the CIA’s own paramilitary unit.[1]

At a meeting at the CIA in early 2011 Admiral William McRaven, the commander of JSOC (Joint Special Operations Command), suggested that one of the military’s special operations forces be used. His suggestion was SEAL Team Six[2], based on their availability. His reasoning for using one of his teams as opposed to a CIA team was as follows: The compound was located 150 miles inside Pakistan. The least of the problems would be the actual storming of the compound. The key challenge was that the attacking force would have to fulfill its mission and extract itself without starting a shooting war with the Pakistani army. This made the mission overly complex and, the more complex a mission, the more things there are that could go wrong. The SEALs, McRaven argued, had perfected these tactics through trial and error, and at the cost of many lives. They knew what they were doing. They had the experience.

McRaven told CIA officials that history has taught that on missions like this, something always goes wrong – no matter how much planning there is. What they needed were men who could think under pressure and adapt to whatever situation materialized. McRaven was persuasive and SEAL team Six got the job.

The commander handpicked the SEALs who would go on the mission. “It was a Dream Team: men who, in the thousands of raids he had overseen, had shown they did not rattle, had shown they could handle themselves coolly and intelligently not just when things went according to plan, but when things went wrong. Those situations required quickly assessing the significance of the error or malfunction or whatever unexpected event had occurred, and then making the necessary adjustments to complete the mission. The core talent required was the ability to adapt, to think for yourself and make smart decisions” (The Finish: The Killing of Osama Bin Laden by Mark Bowden, 2012, p. 192-93).

The ability to adapt is necessary for all successful leaders. Either things don’t go as planned or unexpected opportunities present themselves. While the leader’s vision and overall goal should remain constant, his plans and tactics must be flexible. This requires conditioning and preparation. In this week’s parsha we meet the ultimate adaptable leader—Yosef. Every step of Yosef’s kidnapping and sale to the Midyanim and then to the Yishmaelim was guided by Hashem, and inspired Yosef to adapt in every situation in a manner that would place him on the trajectory to become viceroy in Egypt. The Ketav Sofer points out that Yosef, despite being a charismatic and success-generating individual, managed to act plain and unassuming while in the company of the Yishmaelim. Had he been his normal self, they never would have sold him in Egypt; they would have opted to keep him for themselves. Had that happened Yosef would have remained a permanent prisoner of a nomadic tribe with no hope of becoming a player in world affairs. Yosef thus adapted to the situation by subduing his natural personality.

Upon being sold to Potifar the Kli Yakar (39:3,5) explains that Yosef demonstrated his organizational and managerial skills and earned three promotions within the household operation. Seeing his success Potifar assigned Yosef to his personal staff with the independence necessary to do his job. He then placed him in charge of the entire household staff. Finally, he appointed him as manager of all his operations, including all of his outside concerns.

After Yosef was falsely accused of misconduct, he was sentenced to the royal prison. Yet even there, amid the terrible conditions of a prison, Yosef adapted and managed to impress his superiors, inspire confidence and attain the position of prison manager. The Or Chaim Hakadosh (39:22) suggests, based on the wording of the pasuk, that Yosef, despite being the senior prisoner, did not take advantage of his position and co-opt for himself special privileges. Instead, he worked with the other prisoners sharing in their discomfort. By setting such a high personal example Yosef endeared himself in the eyes of all others.

It seems likely that Yosef also took it upon himself to serve as the moral support for all the inmates. The grace G-d gave him was contagious (See Or Chaim 39:21). With this divine glow, Yosef was able to encourage the prisoners and keep them calm and orderly. No wonder the prison warden appointed him to be in charge of the prisoners.

Arguably, these three instances of adaptability prepared Yosef to adapt when he was appointed viceroy. In this position, Yosef needed to be able to defer to Pharaoh and subdue his personal charisma when necessary, so as not to threaten and challenge Pharaoh’s standing and honor. As manager of the food storage bureaucracy Yosef would need to avail himself of all his managerial skills. At the same time, without the ability to inspire hope in the nation and maintain the morale, Yosef’s food storage and distribution plan would fail before it had a chance to succeed.

Leaders who fail to adapt will become adept at failure. There is no other way. Admiral McRaven was justified tin choosing the SEALs for the Bin Laden mission, if for no other reason then their ability to adapt. As the situation played out, the mission was nearly derailed before it began when one of the Blackhawk helicopters crashed. Government officials watching the mission feeds in Washington, saw visions of the failed Iranian rescue mission in 1980 and Mogadishu in 1993. However, Admiral McRaven, who was supervising the mission from his headquarters in Afghanistan, calmly informed his superiors in Washington: “As you can see, we have a helicopter down in the courtyard. My men are prepared for this contingency and will deal with it” (Ibid, p.226). And deal with it they did. The pilot safely landed the helicopter at an angle, against the wall, the SEALs jumped out, adapted their plan and the rest is history…

[1] It is interesting to note that for legal purposes the SEALs were actually seconded to the CIA for the duration of the mission. So technically speaking the mission was carried out by the CIA, not the U.S. military.

[2] The official name of SEAL Team Six is The United States Naval Special Warfare Development Group (DEVGRU).

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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