On July 7, 1919 the United States Army sent a caravan of 72 vehicles on a cross- country trip. The purpose of this “mission” was to highlight the poor condition of the country’s roads and demonstrate the need to improve them. Additionally, the army wanted to gain publicity for itself since it was quickly being disbanded and forgotten in the aftermath of World War One. Since there was no Route 80 back then, it took the caravan 62 days, at an average of 58 miles a day, to complete the journey. Although in certain instances the soldiers were able to avail themselves of paved roads, most of the time they were forced to use dirt and mud paths.
One of the young officers who participated in this mission was none other than Dwight D. Eisenhower. Despite the fact that he enjoyed himself tremendously on the trip, he nonetheless was astonished at the poor condition of the United States road system. He firmly believed that the roads “had to be upgraded for both vacationers yearning to visit different parts of the country as well as for the military intending to defend it.” (Eisenhower by John Wukovits, Palgrave Macmillan New York, NY 2006, p.32.)
Many years would go by before Eisenhower could do anything about the roads. But riding on his popularity as the general who led America to victory in the Second World War, Eisenhower was elected president in 1952. Besides his experience as a participant in the 1919 caravan, he now had the experience of World War II. During the battles against the Nazis (y”s) Eisenhower saw how the Germans had used the autobahn to their immense advantage. Having such a sophisticated highway system enabled the Germans to quickly transport soldiers from one battle to another. Eisenhower felt that this capability in no small measure allowed the Germans to prolong the defense of their country.
In 1956 Eisenhower proposed the Federal Aid Highway Act. This act authorized the funds to build “what became the interstate highway system, the elaborate network of concrete that connected all sectors of the nation, sparked increased travel, and spurred the growth of restaurants and motels catering to vacationers” (p.176). Additionally, it provided the necessary mobility for the military to defend the country.
Eisenhower recognized that, for the United States to develop and be able to defend itself, its infrastructure had to be improved. Only by enabling easy travel between the different parts of the country would the various regions be able to effectively complement one another and realize the full potential of this nation.
In this week’s parshah we see that Yaakov had already, thousands of years ago, understood the importance of improving a country’s infrastructure. After surviving his encounter with Esav, Yaakov arrived safely at the city of Shechem. Upon reaching the city, the Torah describes (33:18): “Va’yechan Yaakov et pnei ha’ir” -and Yaakov camped on the outskirts of the city. The Gemara in Shabbat (33b) explains that the word vayechan has an additional definition besides camped. According to the Gemara, vayechan also means that he graced the city. In line with this definition, several rabbis offered different suggestions as to how Yaakov graced Shechem.
Rav claimed that Yaakov minted coins for them to use as a common currency of exchange. Shmuel claimed that he organized markets for them to sell and purchase their merchandise. And Rav Yochanan claimed that he built bathhouses for them.
According to the opinions of these rabbis there are two questions. The first is − why did Yaakov do anything for Shechem? The second is − why specifically, these things? On a superficial level Yaakov did these things in order to ingratiate himself to his neighbors and to demonstrate his appreciation to them for allowing him to be their neighbor. On a deeper level, Yaakov, by doing these things, was actually demonstrating his proprietary rights over Israel. Only a person who has an ownership stake would bother with such activities.
In line with this reasoning, we can understand why Yaakov chose to do these things for Shechem. Realizing that his children would ultimately inherit the land, he wanted it to be built up and developed as much as possible by the time of the conquest. Economic development can only take place if people can interact with one another easily. Therefore, by establishing an accepted currency of exchange and a market economy, Yaakov ensured that people would interact with and help one another. With Yaakov’s improvements, a broad and deep economy would flourish, and the land of Israel would develop.
But as we know from history, when people from different areas interact, they transfer diseases from one to the other. Thus, the building of bathhouses was necessary to maintain proper hygiene to prevent people from getting sick.
All leaders must understand the importance of addressing infrastructure issues if they want their organizations to develop and succeed. While there isn’t too much glory involved with such issues, if the infrastructure is neglected, the organization will ultimately collapse.
While many people who drive on U.S. highways every year are unaware that the general who defeated Germany was responsible for building them, it is no exaggeration to claim, that Eisenhower’s greatest legacy as president, was that he authorized the interstate highways to be built. Even though we have the information highway today, we could not function without our interstates.
Rabbi David Hertzberg is the Principal of the Yeshivah of Flatbush Middle Division. Questions and comments can be emailed to him at Mdrabbi@aol.com.