Think Again: The sages and Winograd

Before one can seek knowledge from others, one must first acknowledge that one does not know everything.

jonathanrosenblum88 (photo credit: )
(photo credit: )
During the long summer months, Jews traditionally learn Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers) on Shabbat afternoons. The ancient text can be read this year as a commentary on the Winograd Committee's interim report. The very first teaching found in Avot is: "Be deliberate in judgment" (1:1). By reexamining an issue many times, say the commentators, one will almost always discover a new facet not previously considered, and thus arrive at a more accurate conclusion. One who fails to do so is judged as if he had erred deliberately, even if he believed his judgment was correct: "One who is too self-confident in handing down legal decisions is a fool, wicked and arrogant of spirit" (Avot 4:9). Judgment refers not just to determining past events, but to anticipating future consequences. Indeed, when Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai asked his students "what is the proper way to which a man should cling?" Rabbi Shimon answered that the most important thing is for a person to "consider the consequences of his deeds" (Avot 2:13). That is precisely what our government failed to do. In the words of the Winograd Committee: "The government authorized an immediate military strike that was not thought through." Not only did those responsible for going to war not think two or three moves ahead, they did not think one move ahead. That Hizbullah would strike back with thousands of Katyushas was obvious, yet no inquiries were made about the state of the country's civil defenses. Far worse, no initial consideration was given to how the IDF could eliminate the Katyushas, or whether it was capable of doing so. One key to deliberation in judgment is consultation with others. "The more advice, the more understanding," Hillel taught (Avot 2:8). The internal consultative processes completely broke down in this war. According to Winograd, the prime minister, defense minister and a security cabinet that included three former defense ministers did nothing to probe the IDF's plan of action. TO SEEK advice, one must know that one does not know. Dan Halutz's immediate predecessor as chief of General Staff, Moshe Ya'alon, told Ma'ariv that the essence of the job is consultation, since nobody can be the greatest expert in every aspect of military operations. That entails creating a culture in which subordinates are encouraged to fill in the chief of General Staff's gaps in knowledge, and he makes clear that he appreciates their input. No chief of General Staff ever needed more outside input than Dan Halutz once it became clear that there was no means of halting Katyusha fire from the air. As a lifelong air force man, he had no background for preparing or directing a large-scale ground operation. But his trademark arrogance - the same arrogance that caused him to say once that he relied solely on his own intelligence and determination, without any need of a higher power - tripped him up. Too bad Halutz did not learn just one mishna - "Rabbi Levitas of Yavne said: Be exceedingly humble in spirit" (Avot 4:4). Maimonides comments that every character trait has a golden mean, except for pride. Most of a person's miscalculations and sins come from an excess of pride. To grow in wisdom, one must be a lover of wisdom and seek it out, rather than just relying on what one already knows, no matter how great. So Rabbeinu Yona explains Ben Zoma's definition of a wise man: "One who learns from every person" (Avot 4:1). Before one can seek knowledge from others, however, one must first acknowledge that one does not know everything. That Halutz could not do, and it was reflected in the incoherence of the military campaign and failure to develop and update plans for a ground action. When Ya'alon rushed back from Washington to brief Halutz on plans for a ground operation in Lebanon, Halutz could not find time to meet with him. For consultation to be effective, it is crucial that one does not surround oneself with yes-men. That requires seeking out those who will function like a good study partner, challenging one's every idea and being prepared to offer trenchant criticism. For that reason Rabbi Yehoshua ben Perahya stressed: "Acquire for yourself a friend" (Avot 1:6). A true friend, explain the commentators, is one who seeks his friend's perfection, and therefore does not hesitate to reprove him. To give good advice, that friend does not even have to be at a higher spiritual level; he just needs to be free in the matter at hand of the bias and personal interest of the one he is advising. His distance allows him to give clearheaded advice. Winograd at least settles an old debate about whether character matters in politicians. None of those who presided over the disaster, or those who did nothing to plan or prepare during the six years that Hizbullah was amassing huge stores of Katyushas on our northern border, are indifferent to what they wrought. Nor are they, by and large, unintelligent men. But they were done in by the pervasive corruption, overweening personal ambition and arrogance that permeates our political culture. The habit of asking "What's in it for me?" clouded their judgment and rendered them incapable of thinking straight. Click here for more articles by Jonathan Rosenblum