Parshat Mtot – Rabbi Eliezer Shenvald
These days we are commemorating a year after Operation "Tzuk Eitan" (Protestive Edge) and there is still a public debate about the outcome of the war. Some say we won and others say that even if we didn't lose, we didn't win either.
In this context, let us recall lines that were written last year at the height of the Operation, and see them in the perspective of the year that has passed since.
In our parsha we read about the mitzvah of inheriting the land and the need for decisive victory in the war for the land (Bamidbar 33:55): "And if you don't drive out the natives of the land from before you, then those who you allow to remain will be barbs in your eyes and thorns in your sides." Yehoshua also commands the nation regarding this before his death. (Yehoshua 23:12) We see in the books of the prophets that Israel paid a heavy price for not winning a decisive victory when inheriting the land. The exception was the tribe of Issachar, about which is said (Bereshith 49:15): "He lowered his shoulder to bear a burden and he was a worker paying tribute." Rashi explains this according to the Targum: "To bear the burden of wars and to conquer the regions where they live on the border. And the enemy was defeated under him and served him by paying a tribute." Only the one who wasn't negligent in achieving decisive victory and conquest of his inheritance created the conditions to dwell in his region securely."
The Torah explicitly commands us to conclude the war for the land decisively (Devarim 20:19): "When you besiege a city many days to conquer it…lay siege on the city that battles with you until it falls." The siege has to reach the point of decisive victory "until it falls," meaning breaching its walls "until its walls fall." (Rashbam) However this will only be complete with the absolute conquest of the city (Onkeles). And this gain is not wholly realized until it is translated into complete rule and sovereignty, that it will be subservient to you. (Rashi) The battle cannot be considered a success until it ends with decisive victory even if we wear down the enemy and hit him hard. In war, there is no "victory by points", only by a kind of "knockout", a clear and unambiguous victory which will yield gains over the long term. From these verses the Sages learned that the need to complete the victory allows the Jews to continue the war on Shabbat (Talmud Shabbat 19a): "A city of heathens shouldn't be besieged less than three days before Shabbat, but if the siege was commenced, it isn't stopped. And thus said Shammai: "Until it falls-even on Shabbat."
King David said (in Tehillim 18:38): "I will pursue my enemies until I reach them, and I will not return until I have destroyed them. I will crush them and they won’t be able to rise, they will fall under my feet." We learned from him a few principles about war! The first: The pursuit after the enemies must continue until the mission is accomplished. Until then, "I will not return until I have destroyed them." The second: Even if accomplishing the mission involves much hardship and even danger, "I will not return" – the mission has to be completed entirely – "until I have destroyed them." The third – we have to act determinedly and unhesitatingly and with full force and strive for clear victory – "I will crush them and they won’t be able to rise." The fourth – we need to insure that the gains of the victory will be secure for a long time, so the nation's stamina won't get worn down by a drawn-out war which we will have to repeat again and again. This will give the nation the peace necessary to concentrate its national resources in creative and constructive ways.
The Natziv elaborates in HaEmek Davar (on Bamidbar 24:8) "About King Shaul, it is written 'he prevailed in all that he did', and about King David it is written 'and David was wise in all his ways'. But the difference between them is that one prevails in battle but doesn't conquer his enemy under him, only fells them and weakens them. The result is that he doesn't bring success to his nation. And one prevails and conquers under him. And this is the success of the nation..." Shaul only weakened his enemies and prevailed upon them. David conquered and stationed his guards from Edom to Moav and all the nations he conquered… because the one who prevails over his enemies only weakens them temporarily, until they become stronger few years later. Therefore decisive victory has to remain secure." (See also on Devarim 33:11)
This principle also guided the Hasmoneans in their war. The Natziv (Emek Davar on Devarim 33:11) explains Moshe's blessing to the Tribe of Levi: "And he gave them two blessings: 'He will pound the thighs of his enemies' ….'and his enemies won't be able to rise' which is greater than the first (blessing) which is only pounding and striking during the battle, but they (the enemies) are always liable to rise and overpower in a subsequent war. But this blessing is that the pounding will be such that they will not rise again, like in the Hasmonean war against the Greek empire.
Today there is an academic debate over the subject of decisive victory and how this materializes in a conflict like "Tzuk Eitan" – whether the current relative quiet is the sign of decisive victory or a quiet "time-out" for reorganization for the future. Our opinion is that the second statement is closer to the truth, and we try to utilize the interim to learn lessons and prepare for the future. At the same time, we should closely examine the subject of the Torah's requirement to strive for decisive victory.