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Like Cast Lead: The Expectation of Decisive Victory on Hanukkah

In the middle of Hanukkah, 5768 (December 2007 – January 2008) the IDF launched Operation Cast Lead in Gaza. Even if the operation’s timing was determined by human calculation, we are nevertheless “believers, the children of believers” that God, the Master of the Universe who controls wars and cultivates salvation, took part in determining its timing. After all, the days of Hanukkah historically celebrate Jewish heroism.

Our hearts – and the heart of the entire nation – was with our IDF soldiers and officers, among them yeshiva students who spearheaded the war effort in Gaza. We all prayed for their success and their safety, and for a decisive victory.

The necessity of decisive victory is an explicit commandment of the Torah, which permits prolonging war through Shabbat to this end. The Torah commands us: “When in a war against a city you must besiege it for a long time in order to capture it… you shall construct siege works against the city that is waging war on you, until it is reduced” (Devarim 20:19-20). The siege must lead to a clear decision, “until it is reduced,” namely, until its walls are breached and demolished (Rashbam ad loc.). This is completed only with the complete conquest of the city (as Onkelos’s Aramaic translation implies). Alternatively, as implied by Rashi’s comments, the conquest is not complete until it results in sovereignty and control

over the enemy city.

As long as a battle has not been decisively concluded, it should not be seen as a success even if it weakens the enemy and deals him a severe blow. In war, there is no such thing as a “points decision” – there must be a knockout, a clear, unambiguous decision; a decision that will preserve victory’s attainments for a long time.

This principle is especially true when fighting over the land of Israel. We find that Moshe cautioned the people: “But if you do not dispossess the inhabitants of the land, those whom you allow to remain shall be stings in your eyes and thorns in your sides” (Bamidbar 34:55). Yehoshua issued a similar caution before his death (Yehoshua 23:12). Indeed, the past is instructive; the people of Israel paid a steep price for not achieving decisive victory when possessing the land. The exception was the tribe of Yissachar, about whom the Torah states: “He bent his shoulder to the burden, and he became a toiling serf” (Bereishit 49:15). Based on Onkelos’s translation, Rashi insterprets this verse to mean: “…to shoulder the burdens of war and conquer population centers, since they dwelt on the frontier. Thus, the enemy was subjugated under him like a toiling serf.” In other words, those who were not negligent about achieving decisive victory and conquest dwelt securely in the land of their inheritance, with their enemies as vassals.

This is how King David waged war: “I pursued my enemies and overtook them; I did not turn back until I destroyed them. I struck them down, and they could rise no more; they lay fallen at my feet.” (Tehllim 18:38-39). This teaches us so many principles of waging war successfully! First: pursuit of the enemy must continue until the mission has been accomplished and the objective obtained. Until then, “I did not turn back until I destroyed them.” Second: even if carrying out the mission entails difficulties, even if it endangers life, “I did not turn back” – the mission must be carried out until it is completed – “until I destroyed them.” Third: one must act with determination and without hesitation, bringing full force to bear, striving for a decisive victory. “I struck them down, and they could rise no more.” And fourth: one must operate in a manner that will preserve the victory’s achievements for a long time; no prolonged or recurring war can be allowed to erode the people’s stamina. Thus, the nation will have the tranquility necessary to make its resources available for building and creating.

This is how the Netziv (R. Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin, 19th century Lithuania) explains Bamidbar 24:8 in his commentary, Ha’amek Davar (see his commentary on Devarim 33:!1 as well):

… it is written about King Shaul that he wreaked havoc (marshi’a) wherever he turned, whereas King David brought enlightenment (maskil) in all of his endeavors. The meaning of both descriptions is that they were successful in their wars. The difference between them was that some prevail in war but do not conquer their opponents – they only defeat and weaken them. He has not brought success to his nation, but has only wreaked havoc on his opponents. Others prevail and then conquer, bringing success to the entire nationShaul merely weakened and wreaked havoc on his opponents, whereas David conquered them, appointing governors over Edom, Moav, and the other nations he conquered… one who wreaks havoc on his enemies only weakens them temporarily; they will grow strong again in a few years. It is therefore necessary to be careful.

This principle finds expression in the story of Hanukkah as well. R. Yehiel Mikhel Epstein, the author of Arukh Ha-shulhan (Orah Hayim 683:1) explains why we recite the full Hallel all eight days of Hanukkah and do not skip sections, as we do on Pesah:

On Hanukkah we recite the complete Hallel because the miracle of the cruse of oil occurred each day; also, because each day has a different number of candles… so it is like Sukkot, on which there are different sacrifices each day and on which we recite the complete Hallel; also, because we read the Torah portions about the tribal princes, and a different prince made his offering each day, and each prince had to recite the full Hallel over his offering (Beit Yosef); also, based on what I wrote (in sec. 670), they celebrated eight days of Hanukkah in lieu of the eight days of Sukkot that they did not celebrate, and consequently they recited the full Hallel as on Sukkot.

Here he indirectly answers the question: what is the difference between Pesah and Sukkot? This echoes the Talmud’s question: “Why is Sukkot, on which we recite [the full Hallel] each day, different from Pesach, on which we do not recite [the full Hallel except on the first day]?” The Talmud answers: “Each day of Sukkot had a different offering; there was no difference between offerings on the days of Pesah” (Sukkah 47a). In other words, each day of Sukkot is a sort of separate holiday that has its own special sacrificial offerings. On Pesah, however, the same sacrifices are offered each day. Why?

We can explain the gemara’s statements as follows: the holiday of Pesah is delimited by two different events. On the first day was the actual exodus from Egypt, and on the last day was the splitting of the sea. But considering it more carefully, these are not two events, but one prolonged process. It begins on the first day with the exodus, but it is still reversible and can be altered by Pharaoh’s army, which remained capable of retuning the Israelites to Egypt. The process culminated in a final decisive victory with the splitting of the sea and the drowning of Pharaoh’s entire army in the sea: “He hurled horse and rider into the sea.” Thus, each day of Pesah should not be viewed as a separate holiday. On contrast, Sukkot commemorates miracles that happened each day.

So too on Hanukah there were miracles every day, and there were many events – battles and victories – that led to several achievements and to a decisive victory whose effects were felt for a long time: the few defeated the many, Jews enjoyed independence and self-government for two centuries, the Temple service was restored, and many Jews fully repented. For this reason we recite the full Hallel each day.

Even after Hanukkah ended and the operation in Gaza continued, we hoped and prayed that it would end, in the spirit of Hanukkah on which it began, with a decisive victory, irreversible as cast lead.

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