Erich M. Remarque knew when he wrote All Quiet on the Western Front in 1928 that he was presenting the world with an anti-war novel. Scarred by his own experiences as a German soldier in World War I, he argued about the senselessness of war and the heavy toll regular people had to pay for the follies of their leaders. The title of the book (the English version) comes from its conclusion. Paul Baumer, the story’s protagonist had survived nearly four years of combat. During this time he witnessed friends being killed and maimed and had become a killer himself. He had seen all his values challenged and shattered. But at least the war was nearly over.
Throughout the book, Paul told the story in first person narration. But for obvious reasons the book switches to third person narration in the last few sentences. Paul never made it home. “He fell in October 1918, on a day that was so quiet and still on the whole front, that the army report confined itself to the single sentence: All quiet on the Western Front.” Remarque left us with the ultimate tragic irony. Paul, who had survived it all, died apparently, at the hands of a sniper a mere month before the armistice.
Remarque understood the message he was delivering to the world. But I would like to focus for a moment on his (or more appropriately his translator to English) unintended contribution to the lexicon of the English language. He gave us the phrase: “All quiet on the Western Front.” In many contexts when a person is asked for a status report, if nothing of consequence happened the reply, “All quiet on the Western Front” can be heard in response. It is the catchphrase meaning the status quo stands.
However, I think the phrase as used in the book harbors a subtle warning. Paul dies on what was an uneventful day. The message is clear – there really is no such thing as a quiet day. All days, even those that seem ordinary and prosaic, contain the potential for great achievement or horrific catastrophe.
The Torah in this week’s parsha describes multiple days. It begins with the seven days of creation. Each day was replete with magnificence. No matter how many times we have heard the parsha, when the Torah reader finishes each day’s description we wait eagerly to hear about the next day because we know great things are going to happen. Later in the parsha when Kayin kills Hevel the episode begins (4:3) with the words: “And it happened at the end of a period of time.” Commentators suggest various explanations regarding what time period is being referred to. However, there is a consensus that the day Kayin brought his sacrifice was significant in some way. Even when the Torah describes humanity’s moral degeneration at the end of the parsha (6:5) with the words, “And man’s thoughts were only evil all/everyday,” it is clear that there are no longer any quiet days. Every day was filled with evil.
However, there is one incident that may have occurred on an otherwise quiet day. The Torah describes quite cryptically (4:23) a dialogue between Lemech and his wives. Chazal explain that on one day Lemech killed both Kayin and his own son Tuval-Kayin. What is striking in the Torah’s recording of the events that transpired is that it makes no mention of the day on which it occurred. This is in contrast to all the other events in the parsha where there is some indication, either in the Written or Oral Torah, as to the day that it occurred. Arguably, one of the Torah’s messages is that there really is no such thing as a quiet day. Even on days that seem routine, there is the potential for either great success or abysmal failure. Leaders must always be on the lookout for opportunities to achieve great things and to consider the dangers lurking out of sight. Had Paul in the book been more careful on one such day he would likely have lived to see the war’s end. Had Lemech been more alert to this reality, all of history might have turned out differently.