Shabbat, July 3, 1976. Most Americans were eagerly anticipating the next day’s bicentennial celebrations. But Jews around the world had the hostages being held in Entebbe on their mind. I was in camp at the time and vividly recall a discussion my bunkmates and I were having with one of the camp rabbeim about the crisis and what its resolution was going to be. One of the campers suggested that Israel launch a military operation to free the hostages. The rabbi looked at the boy with a “you gotta be kidding” face. He then proceeded to explain the insurmountable difficulties Israel would face, making the likelihood of success next to nothing.
Imagine our shock the next morning. We awoke to the news that Israel had indeed pulled off a successful raid and brought home virtually all the hostages safely. It seemed to me at the time that our rabbi, while a true scholar, was not quite a military strategist. Only with age and my research into the raid did I come to appreciate that rabbi’s insight.
For the most part, he was right. It was a near-impossible raid to execute and for much of the crisis the IDF chief of staff, Motta Gur, would not sign off on the mission. It was only near the time of the actual raid, when new intelligence was acquired, that he recommended the mission move forward.
In the recent posthumously-published memoirs of Shimon Peres, No Room for Small Dreams (2017), the difficulty of the mission is made abundantly clear. Israel was faced with a terrible dilemma. For most of the crisis, there was no viable military option. It seemed that Israel would be forced to negotiate with the terrorists, thus setting a very dangerous precedent and encouraging further hijackings and terrorist attacks.
Prime Minister Rabin expressed his concerns about the attack plan. “I am still uncertain about this operation. We have never had so many hostages. We have never had such limited military information. This is going to be the riskiest operation I have ever known” (p.132).
The counter-argument, however, was that to negotiate would potentially cost even more lives in the future than a failed rescue operation would in the present.
With time, there was new intelligence about where the hostages were being held and how may terrorists there were. In the interim, Israel had received permission to refuel in Kenya, which was critical for the mission’s success. Additionally, the practice runs the Israeli commandos performed showed that the exact timetable necessary for the mission’s success could be maintained.
At the cabinet meeting to make the final decision to launch (the IDF had placed all forces participating in the operation at full readiness levels to enable immediate takeoff pending approval), Peres explained that, “The heart-wrenching question is whether we risk the lives of innocent unarmed civilians and the save the future of this country – or not. If we surrender, we encourage more operations like this” (page 135).
Lt. General Gur then described the operation. When asked by ministers about fueling and weather concerns, Gur acknowledged the dangers that existed. When asked what would happen if the terrorists moved the hostages, Rabin interjected and said, “The mission will be a complete and utter failure” (page 135).
Despite all the concerns and unknown variables, the cabinet approved the operation. As we know, the operation was a success. However, the decision makers understood that it could fail. Probabilities were assessed, risks evaluated, and political consequences considered, and then Rabin and his cabinet decided the least bad option was to launch the operation.
We see in this week’s parsha an example of a difficult decision that needed to be made despite the unpredictability of the situation and the concern for potential consequences. Upon hearing Yitzchak inform Esav that he wanted to bestow on him the family blessing, Rivka loses no time in spurring Yaakov into action. She instructs him to dress up as Esav and to bring Yizchak his favorite delicacies that she would prepare. Yaakov expresses his concerns (27:11-12). He describes the physical differences between him and Esav and his fears that Yitzchak will discover the ruse and Yaakov will be cursed as a result. Rivka responds that if anything goes wrong, she will be the recipient of the curse. Thus Yaakov has nothing to fear.
The Meam Loez, in his first explanation, posits that Rivka told Yaakov that she knows through prophecy that no curse will befall him. She explained that even if Yitzchak finds out and gets angry, he will direct his anger at her as Yaakov’s mother and not at Yaakov himself.
In a second explanation, the Meam Loez offers the following probabilistic approach. Yaakov initially felt that it wasn’t worth the risk. In assessing the situation, he felt it was very likely he would be exposed as a fraud and get cursed. And even if he wasn’t exposed, there was a chance that whatever bracha he received wouldn’t work as it had been acquired through subterfuge. To these concerns, Rivka responded that they couldn’t know that Yitzchak would curse him, but if he failed to listen to her, she would most definitely do so. As to his concerns regarding whether the blessings will be valid given the circumstances, she told him that if she had any doubt as to the success of the endeavor, she would not push him to do it.
What is interesting is that according to this explanation, quoted by the Meam Loez from other commentators, we have to make decisions even with imperfect knowledge and knowing the associated risks. In this case, Rivka clarified to Yaakov the near-certainty that all would turn out for the good. However, it is logical to deduce that even lacking a prophetic guarantee, Yaakov would have listened to Rivka. In fact, from a literal and simple reading of the verses, this is what seems to have occurred.
Leaders often have to make difficult decisions of critical importance. Unfortunately, they must decide with limited knowledge and information. (Colin Powell claimed that most decisions are made with between 40%-70% of the relevant information.) But decide and act they must. Passivity and indecision are even worse options. The realization that they must make decisions under conditions of uncertainty should breed tremendous humility and belief in G-d. And when their decisions prove successful, they must never forget to express their thanks to the Almighty.
I remember that during the Entebbe crisis many shuls and yeshivot were saying Tehillim every day. When the hostages were rescued, they stopped; the crisis was over. In one yeshiva, however, following davening on the morning of the rescue, one student went to the shtender and pounded it to get everyone’s attention. People looked at him with bewilderment. Why was he about to say Tehillim? The hostages were free. He then began with an emotion-filled voice the words, “Mizmor L’Todah,” a hymn of thanksgiving – thanking Hashem for the miracle He performed.