Historians suggest various reasons to study history. First and foremost among academics is to gain a better understanding of the past on its own terms and for its own sake. A second reason is that by understanding the past we will be better able to understand the present. Another reason given is that history can be captivating. Everybody loves a good story and, told well, the stories of history can be absolutely riveting. In addition, history educates. While there may not be hard fast laws of history, there are definitely guidelines. History alerts us to the questions we need to ask and the issues we need to consider when making decisions in our own lives. It also provides us with some rules of thumb.
An example of one such rule is, “The enemy always gets a vote.” All too often military planners design a battle plan whose success depends on both sides doing what the planners envision them doing. The problem is that even controlling one’s own forces and keeping them to a strict timetable is hard enough; controlling one’s opponent is impossible. The “enemy” has a mind of its own.
A classic example is the Schlieffen Plan, which was the German blueprint for victory in 1914 at the outset of World War I. Addressing the need to fight a two-front war, against both France and Russia, the plan called for a quick six-week-war against France with the bulk of the German army, while a small contingent would hold off the Russians in the east. The rationale behind the plan was that France would mobilize quicker and therefore had to be defeated immediately. Russia, it was believed, would require time to mobilize and, by the time it did, Germany would have defeated France and would now be able to transfer its troops to the east to defeat Russia in turn. The only problem with this plan (and I admit I am oversimplifying) is that the French “forgot” to be defeated and the Russians mobilized much quicker than the Germans anticipated. Instead of a quick victory, Germany received a four-year war that it ultimately lost.
A second example comes from the world of military intelligence. A key lesson from famous intelligence failures is that one must always question assumptions and analytical assessments. Behind many intelligence fiascos is the failure by analysts to ask these hard questions. (There are also failures in collection. However, most examples of “intelligence failures” where culpability is assigned are failures of analysis.)
One such tragic example is the intelligence failure preceding the Yom Kippur War. Israel was operating under “the concept” – that Egypt would not attack unless certain conditions were met. Since those conditions were not met, Israel assumed Egypt would not attack. Thus, they explained away all conflicting evidence. In 2013 Eli Zeira, who commanded Israel’s military intelligence in 1973, and was thus most responsible for assessing a low probability of war, explained that he made a fundamental error. He related that he always carried in his pocket a piece of paper with two Hebrew words written on it: “V’im Lo – And if not?” Zeira always asked his subordinates this question. But he neglected to ask it of himself in the days prior to the war.
This historical rule of thumb of always asking ourselves what if it’s not or what if I’m wrong helps us understand a midrashic observation recorded in Rashi at the beginning of this week’s parsha. Rashi, quoting the midrash, asks why the debacle of the spies was written immediately following the episode surrounding Miriam’s mistake and punishment? The midrash answers that the spies should have heeded an important lesson from Miriam with respect to being careful when speaking critically. Miriam, who had Moshe’s best interest at heart, nonetheless erred and was punished accordingly. The spies should thus have been much more circumspect before they spoke negatively about Eretz Yisrael. Tragically, they failed to learn and incorporate this lesson.
Commentators ask why the midrash singles out Miriam’s sin. After all, there were many miraculous events revolving around the Exodus and their travels in the desert. Each of these individually, and certainly all together, should have made the spies realize that G-d could bring them into the land safely. Why then the focus on Miriam?
The answer lies in understanding exactly what Miriam’s mistake was. She had the right intentions and she had the right facts. In modern intelligence jargon we would say that she had identified all the correct “dots.” Her mistake was in regard to her analysis which resulted in a faulty assumption. Rav Joseph B. Soloveitchik zt”l explains that Miriam thought Moshe’s prophecy was just like hers and Aharon’s with the only difference being one of frequency. G-d’s response was that Moshe’s prophecy was of a completely different level. He was therefore required to be ready 24/7. Miriam erred with her analysis.
But that in and of itself was not the main mistake. Miriam, like all people, had the right and obligation to analyze the facts. Perhaps her main mistake was that she did not consider the possibility that she was mistaken before she spoke critically of Moshe. Had she questioned her assumption and analysis she might have realized that Moshe was justified in being always on call or, at the very least, she would have asked him directly and not spoken to Aharon about it.
The spies failed to learn this lesson. They had all the right facts but the wrong assumptions and therefore analyzed the facts and connected the dots incorrectly. From there it was a short distance to demoralizing the nation and rebelling against G-d. Had they properly learned from Miriam’s experience they might have, at the very least, questioned their assumptions and challenged their analysis regarding conquering Israel. But they did not and thus condemned Bnei Yisrael to sojourn in the desert for forty years.
Let us give the last word on this topic to Winston Churchill, who delivered the following words describing the dangers of not learning from history to the House of Commons in May 1935.
“When the situation was manageable it was neglected, and now that it is thoroughly out of hand we apply too late the remedies which then might have effected a cure. There is nothing new in the story. It is as old as the sibylline books. It falls into that long, dismal catalogue of the fruitlessness of experience and the confirmed unteachability of mankind. Want of foresight, unwillingness to act when action would be simple and effective, lack of clear thinking, confusion of counsel until the emergency comes, until self-preservation strikes its jarring gong – these are the features which constitute the endless repetition of history.”