May 1864 was one of the bloodiest months in American military history. At what came to be known as the Battle of the Wilderness, General Grant’s Union forces suffered close to 18,000 casualties between May 3 and May 6. It seemed as yet another Union general, even one such as Grant who had been successful out west, lost to General Robert E. Lee. The soldiers in the Union army were convinced that following the battle, Grant, like all the generals before him who had faced Lee in Virginia, would retreat across the Rapidan River to nurse his wounds and rethink his strategy. They fully expected, when they arrived at a fork in the road after they left the Wilderness battlefield, to go left towards the north and the river. It therefore came as quite a surprise to them when they were ordered to march right and south.
Suddenly cheers began to spread throughout the line of march as General Grant and his staff rode by. “In a scene reminiscent of Napoleon’s torchlight march among his troops the night before the Battle of Austerlitz, many Union soldiers lit pine torches and held them aloft as Grant passed. The general remarked that the cheering might alert the Confederates to the army’s movement and sought to have it stopped, but it continued until he was out of sight” (Lee & Grant: Profiles in Leadership from the Battlefields of Virginia by Major Charles R. Bowery Jr., U.S. Army, 2005, pp.104-5).
Indeed, one of the soldiers of 124th New York Volunteers is quoted as exclaiming to his friend when Grant rode by, “I say Joe, this little chap from out West—I don’t believe he knows when he’s whipped. If it hadn’t been for his coming along with us we would have been back to our old camp again by this time.” His friend Joe replied, “I’ll just bet you a plug of tobacco and a briarwood pipe, that this army never re-crosses the Rapidan until we go home to stay!” (p.105).
It would in fact take Grant nearly a year to wear down Lee’s army and force his surrender at Appomattox Court House. Grant would suffer many trials in the process and endure much criticism. Battles such as Cold Harbor, Spotsylvania, The Crater and the siege of Petersburg cost the Union tens of thousands of casualties. But Grant learned from his mistakes and viewed his losses as setbacks, not failures. He understood the fundamental truth that in a war of attrition Lee stood no real chance. During this trying time the biggest obstacle to Union victory was the tired and drained Northern will—not Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia.
Grant had demonstrated this tenacity throughout his military career. In July 1863 Grant had captured Vicksburg—arguably the most important single victory of the war. But it was also a victory that was hard-won after many months and tactical setbacks. Grant changed approaches several times—but never lost faith that he could achieve victory and never lost his focus. He learned from his mistakes as well as from that which occurred beyond his control. Grant’s actions have taught generations of military commanders the importance of never giving up, never looking back and never allowing the enemy to take the initiative. In addition, he taught commanders to learn from mistakes, to adapt tactics when necessary without abandoning the objective, and to view setbacks as learning opportunities to ultimately move forward even further than originally intended.
Chazal had already learned these leadership lessons from a midrash on this week’s parsha. The midrash relates (Tanchuma Parshat Pikudei: 11) that prior to the official dedication and inauguration of the Mishkan, Moshe assembled and disassembled the Mishkan each day throughout the prior week. According to Rav Chiya he did this twice daily while according to Rav Chanina he did it three times daily. The obvious question is why? Why didn’t Moshe build it once and leave it standing?
The anthology Meiyana Shel Torah quotes the following explanation of the Imrei Emes. Historically there were to be seven Temples. The Mishkan of the desert was the first. Then came the one in the Gilgal followed by the one in Shilo. That was followed by the temples in Nov and Givon. Following Givon were the two Batei Mikdash in Jerusalem. Each day Moshe taught Bnei Yisrael how they were to rebuild the Temple following its predecessor’s destruction. Moshe’s efforts were therefore twofold in nature. On the general level he informed Bnei Yisrael that there would be spiritual revivals following spiritual lapses. He also taught them the particulars as to how to go about rebuilding the Temple following its destruction.
The Slonimer Rebbe in Nesivos Shalom (Pekudei p.279) develops a similar idea, but applies it to our individual religious experiences. In life, as we move forward and grow, there will be inevitable setbacks. The lesson Moshe taught was that no matter how much time we have invested in our development and no matter how frustrating the setbacks may be—we must never despair. Rather, we must return immediately to rebuild what we have lost. In fact, the Slonimer Rebbe argues that such setbacks serve a positive and constructive purpose. By constantly assembling and disassembling our personal and inner temples we have the opportunity to look into the recesses of our souls and check to make sure that everything is of the best quality and on the highest level. Each time we rebuild the finished product is that much better.