Generals fight the last war, while privates fight the war they are in. Leaders study the past intensely in order to avoid repeating past mistakes. But because human beings see the present through the prism of what they know best, leaders end up imposing past patterns on present realities.
Consider the end of Parshat Matot. The tribes of Reuven and Gad come to Moshe with what seems to them a simple immediate syllogism.
1) We have sheep
2) The land here, which we have just conquered, is excellent for sheep, whereas the land we are heading toward, on the West Bank of the Jordan, does not have as much sheep-friendly terrain
3) Therefore we should stay here, while the rest of you go on.
Moshe begins his response with a moral point: “Will your brothers go to war while you stay here?”. He then moves on to a pragmatic point: “Why would you discourage the heart of The Children of Israel from crossing over to the land that G-d has given them?” All this Is directly responsive to the situation and people in front of him. But it soon becomes clear that the gravamen of his response is historical: “This is what your ancestors did when I sent them from Kadesh Barnea to see the land; they went up as far as Nachal Eshkol”; they saw the land; they discouraged the heart of the Children of Israel, so that they would not go to the land which Hashem had given them.” This recitation of past evil incites him to passion. G-d’s wrath is mentioned twice, and His oath that no one of the previous generation (other than Yehoshua and Caleb) would enter Israel. Moshe concludes simply by saying: “You will be the destruction of this entire nation”.
Much of this seems unfair. The two tribes have no interest in discouraging their brethren from moving on; they have no lack of faith in G-d; and they are perfectly willing to serve in the army that will conquer the land of Canaan. Moshe’s anger is the result of his seeing the past in the present, when it is not fully there.
But it is also not fully absent. Reuven and Gad’s initial proposal demonstrates a shocking lack of moral and historical awareness. Like spoiled children, they claim the first slice of cake. They do not consider how the other tribes will react to their rejection of what has been the common goal and dream for forty years, or how G-d will react to their rejection of His promised gift. The solution to the problem of generals fighting the last war is not to put the privates in charge.
What ensues in Chumash is a delicate negotiation conducted entirely by implication.
The two tribes return to Moshe with a more fleshed-out proposal that is much different than what they originally had in mind. They will not only participate in the Conquest, but be the vanguard. They will not leave until the Conquest is complete. And they disclaim any rights to the land across the Jordan, no matter how great their contribution to its conquering. They will not be having seconds.
Moshe formally accepts the new proposal, but his restatement of the terms of agreement introduces religious language that was completely absent from their proposal. As Nechama Leibowitz notes, they don’t mention G-d once, while Moshe invokes Him five times. Their military service becomes an oath to G-d, which it will be a sin against G-d to break, rather than a recognition of interpersonal responsibility.
Moshe is only willing to bring the new covenant to the rest of the people after Reuven and Gad (and perhaps half of Menasheh) formally accept both this reframing and his own authority.
This story ends well, but my point is that it didn’t have to. The two tribes could have responded to Moshe’s anger with incomprehension or intransigence, which would only have confirmed him in his analysis. Moshe could have responded dismissively to the tribes’ second-stage offer. They could have seen his reformulation as overbearing or even dishonest. Each of these results would have made Moshe’s initial reaction self-fulfilling.
We surely cannot expect today’s Orthodox rabbinate to be better at leadership than Moshe Rabbeinu! We too will often impose past patterns on present reality. Not every suggested liturgical change is the precursor to a mass rejection of Halakhah. The same strategies cannot be right for when halakhah claims the loyalty of 90% of Jews as for when it claims the loyalty of 10%. A world in which we have statehood and power over others makes different demands than one in which we are powerless and stateless. Moreover, the very fact that so few Jews today acknowledge Halakhah’s claims on them demonstrates that many of our past strategies failed miserably.
The solution is not to eliminate halakhic authority. Rather, I suggest, this week’s parshah provides a powerful past lens to train on current events. There are ways – often quiet and implicit – for religious leaders and lay communities to learn from one another, and to take each other’s experiences into genuine account.