Photo Credit: Jewish Press

Mickey Marcus. Most people today probably never heard of him. Yet he played a significant role in the forging of the Israeli Defense Forces. A graduate of West Point, he was an American colonel who, for a few months in 1948, helped David Ben-Gurion convince the Haganah and Palmach to transform themselves from a home guard into a modern army. He was the first person to receive the rank of Aluf – the equivalent of a major general. Tragically he was killed in early June 1948 by friendly fire, hours before the first truce was to take effect.

In 1962, Ted Berkman wrote a book entitled Cast A Giant Shadow: The Story of Mickey Marcus, Who Died to Save Jerusalem. This book was made into a movie by the same name in 1966 starring Kirk Douglas. I reread the book after returning from Israel several weeks ago where I was researching a new course I will be teaching in the fall on the 1948 War. Although the book is somewhat dated in style, it is still a fascinating read.


Among the many interesting interactions described in the book is one that Marcus had with Palmach commanders. His goal was to convince the assembled audience that they needed to start thinking in terms of larger units as opposed to smaller ones. He emphasized that the future war would not be against Arab marauders, but rather against professional armies sending in brigades (1500-3000 soldiers) and divisions (10,000 soldiers). Following his formal comments one of the commanders asked him if company and platoon commanders would lose their initiative (p.87).

“No, Mickey replied. But their freedom of action would have to be subordinated to the over-all plan. There were complex operations where it might be impossible for the officer at company or even battalion level (A battalion generally consists of three companies for a total of between 300-500 soldiers.) to encompass the whole picture. He might be given an order which, from his restricted point of view, made no sense. Nonetheless, it was essential that such an order be carried out; the lives of his comrades miles away might depend on it” (p.88).

Marcus’s response captured the challenge commanders have. On the one hand they must stay true to their orders. On the other hand, they must show initiative and be flexible on the battlefield. A balance is best accomplished when small-unit commanders have a proper understanding of the mission and what is known as commander’s intent (referring to the higher commander). This enables the small-unit commander to decide when adjusting his specific orders are warranted and when he should stay the course.

The need to comprehend the commander’s intent to find that balance helps us understand why Hashem responded differently in various cases when people altered “the plan” and demonstrated initiative. In this week’s parsha, the Torah relates (9:17), Moshe reviewing with Bnei Yisrael how he broke the Luchos after he saw the golden calf. Later in the parsha (10:2), Moshe describes how Hashem instructed him to make a second set of Luchos to replace the ones he destroyed (see also Shemot 34:1). The Hebrew words for “that you destroyed” are “asher shibarta.” The Gemara (Shabbat 57a) posits in the name of Reish Lakish that through the Hebrew words used in the Torah, Hashem indicated his approval of Moshe’s decision to destroy the Tablets.

Let us go back for a second to Nadav and Avihu. Why did Hashem choose to punish them? One could argue that since, according to many commentators, they were motivated by sincere reasons, Hashem should have congratulated them as He did here with Moshe.

What is the difference between the two cases?

I believe that the concept of commander intent can help us answer this question. When Moshe was given the first set of Luchos he understood clearly that their purpose was to inspire and guide Bnei Yisrael to properly serve Hashem. When he saw how terribly low the nation had sunk in his absence, he realized that not only were they not ready to receive the Luchos, there was a good chance they would defile them and destroy any future chance of repentance. He understood that the shock of his breaking the Luchos was necessary to lay the groundwork for Bnei Yisrael to repent and to ultimately receive the second set of Luchos. As such, Moshe acted in perfect harmony with Hashem’s intent.

On the other hand, Nadav and Avihu totally misunderstood Hashem’s intent. They thought the singular purpose of the Mishkan’s dedication was to inspire Bnei Yisrael to worship Hashem with complete dedication and total passion. Thus, they thought something spontaneous and off-script would help achieve this purpose. What they failed to understand, however, was that a second purpose of the dedication ceremony was to teach everyone that there was now only one location for the sacrificial rituals and that people would need to follow very strict guidelines when visiting the Mishkan. There would be other ways to demonstrate initiative in worshiping Hashem. Adjusting the sacrificial order would not be one of them.

Leaders on all levels must pay careful attention to the commander’s intent as a misunderstanding can result in terrible consequences. At the same time, higher-level leaders must be very clear about what their “intent” is, i.e. what the mission is, and must be very careful to communicate this “intent” in an unambiguous way. In June 1948, poor communication caused the premature death of one of Israel’s early military heroes. When it comes to commander’s intent, effective communication is often the difference between success and failure.

As we begin Chodesh Elul and focus on how we need to improve, let us always bear in mind what Hashem’s intent is so that we make the right decisions and lead our lives accordingly.


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Rabbi Dr. David Hertzberg is the principal of the Yeshivah of Flatbush Middle Division. He is also an adjunct assistant professor of History at Touro College. Comments can be emailed to him at [email protected].