After over four years of destructive war, the combatant nations who faced off against each other in what was then primarily known as The Great War, gathered in January 1919 in Paris to negotiate the post-war settlement. While the defeated states of Germany and Austria were supposed to have a say at the conference, as it turned out, they were excluded from negotiations. The main players were France, Great Britain and the United States. Italy originally had a voice at the table, but angrily withdrew from the conference when its government felt the promises made during the war were not being addressed.
The peace negotiations concluded in June 1919 with the signing of the Treaty of Versailles. This treaty is one of the most infamous in history. One of its many legacies is that it serves as a guide on how not to negotiate a treaty. Pretty much everyone was upset with it. Germany was furious that she had to accept full responsibility for the war and agree to pay a to-be-determined amount of reparations in the future. What’s more, Germany was excluded from the negotiations and its leaders felt they were not given a chance to voice their concerns. Tragically, Hitler made abrogating this treaty one of the Nazi party’s main political objectives.
But the victorious countries were also upset. France felt the treaty didn’t go far enough in punishing and weakening Germany so as to prevent a future war. The United States felt that it focused too much on punishing Germany and not enough on establishing a new international state system that would prevent future wars in the first place.
The list of complaints went on.
Colonel Edward House, a member of the American delegation, wrote on the last day of the conference an acknowledgement of the weaknesses of the treaty. “To those who are saying that the Treaty is bad and should never have been made and that it will involve Europe in infinite difficulties in its enforcement, I feel like admitting it. But I would also say in reply that empires cannot be shattered and new states raised upon their ruins without disturbance… While I should have preferred a different peace, I doubt whether it could have been made, for the ingredients for such a peace as I would have had were lacking in Paris…”
While historians have analyzed and continue to analyze the problems of the treaty, I believe the beginning of this week’s parsha gives us some insight into what went wrong and how to try to prevent such occurrences in the future.
The Torah begins by describing Moshe assembling Bnei Yisrael. Our rabbis have used this pasuk as support for many important ideas. For example, Moshe was teaching Bnei Yisrael that if they truly desired the Mishkan to function and achieve its purpose they would have to focus on their unity. As such, Moshe assembled them to underscore the relationship between the Mishkan’s viability and Bnei Yisrael’s unity.
Rashi states that this event occurred on the day immediately following Yom Kippur. Commentators explain that Moshe purposely assembled them after Yom Kippur to teach them that it is not only on Yom Kippur that unity is necessary, there must be continuing efforts to perpetuate that unity. Rav Aharon Greenberg in his anthology Iturei Torah quotes an explanation that suggests that when Moshe saw Bnei Yisrael’s enthusiasm at being forgiven, he decided to channel it into building the Mishkan. In light of this I would like to suggest the following additional thought. Moshe knew the importance of unity and it is for that reason he assembled Bnei Yisrael. But he realized that just gathering them together was not enough to ensure unity. They needed some unifying purpose. To that end Hashem commanded Moshe to instruct Bnei Yisrael to build the Mishkan. Besides the inherent importance of building a sanctuary, it would also serve as a unifying force.
Leaders must heed this lesson. It is not enough to assemble one’s people in one place. There must be a unifying mission. In 1919, leaders gathered in Paris, but they were not united. Each state’s delegation had its own agenda and those agendas were often at odds with one another. While there was an assembly, there was no unity of purpose. And with no unity of purpose the leaders produced a treaty that nobody liked. During World War II, Allied leaders did their best not to repeat the mistakes of 1919. To some extent they succeeded. Sadly, tens of millions of people were killed in that war, including six million of our own people, partly because the leaders in 1919 came together – separately.