“And three thousand of the nation went up there and they fled from the people of Ay.”
The Jewish warriors were taken by surprise. They anticipated finding a petrified, helpless city but discovered in its place a confident army prepared to battle and even lead an offensive attack if necessary. This shocked the Jewish warriors and led them to violate the most basic principle of war: never flee or retreat. In fact, the Mishna in Sota 44b teaches us with documented proofs that, “Retreat marks the beginning of defeat.” Yet since the Jewish people were unprepared for serious resistance, they felt that Hashem’s helping hand had left them, and they panicked and ran for their lives. As we will soon learn, this attitude was very costly and brought them major setback.
Although Scriptures reveal (see verse 11) that this defeat was the result of Achan’s violation, it is difficult to see this as the sole cause of their downfall. Although the Jewish people were remotely responsible for Achan’s unethical conduct, could this endanger an entire Jewish army? As we will soon learn, the issue was so serious that it required our Patriarch Avraham’s intervention to reduce the level of casualties. And even this was not sufficient to protect the Jewish people from Hashem’s severe response.
It would seem that, in truth, Achan’s inappropriate behavior was a reflection of a faint error in the Jewish people’s thinking. The warriors approached Ay with the assumption that Hashem would grant them total victory. Based on their previous experiences, they relied upon their own merits, expecting Hashem to deliver according to plan. In truth, although Hashem was there for them, He was certainly not bound to their specific expectations. All they could truly hope for was that Hashem would be there in His way at their time of need. They did not see things this way, and when their particular expectations were not met, they panicked. This faint trace of imperfection reflected a sense of personal credit and ran parallel lines with Achan’s overt expression of this attitude. Having traces of this flaw themselves ,the Jewish warriors were held responsible for Achan’s violation and caused Hashem to remove His protection from them. If Hashem would have continued His miracles, this would have been further cause for the people to believe in their own merit.
With these words we can attempt to explain another insight of the Sages regarding this defeat. In the upcoming passages (see verse 10) Rashi deduces that Yehoshua was partially at fault for this defeat. Hashem initially taught that the Jewish leader must accompany his army in the front lines. Hashem added that if the leader does not do so, he will be unsuccessful in battle. Apparently, Yehoshua did not lead in the battle of Ay. Relying upon the scouts report, Yehoshua did not see the necessity of accompanying them in this simple conquest. After the defeat, Hashem reprimanded Yehoshua for failing to follow instructions. Radak raises serious concern over this interpretation which doesn’t seem to follow the reason given in the text; namely, Achan’s violation.
However, we can now suggest that both reasons are correct because, in truth, there were two dimensions to this error. As we have explained, the Jewish warriors were held at fault because of their faint sense of self-credit. The Scriptures teach us that this could and would have been prevented had Yehoshua led them into war. Yehoshua embodied the lessons of Moshe Rabbeinu and no self-credit could be seen on his face. Although Achan had sinned, no casualty would have resulted without a parallel display of this fault. Although Yehoshua undoubtedly had no clue of Achan’s sin, he could have circumvented the people’s downfall by maintaining their perfect sense of trust in Hashem.’
“And the people of Ay smote like thirty three men and chased them before the gates until they broke them. And they smote them on the incline and the people’s hearts melted and became water.”
Radak quotes our Sages who raise concern over the words, “like thirty three,” which suggest an inaccuracy in the actual number of casualties. Our Sages respond that, in fact, only one person fell in battle. However, his significance to the Jewish people was likened to thirty three men. They explain that this passage refers to the loss of Yair Ben Menashe who was equivalent to most of the Sanhedrin – the court with seventy-one members that was the governing body of Israel.
Apparently, the Sanhedrin more than anyone else was held at fault for these errors. Firstly, they should have set a higher standard of ethical behavior and law enforcement amongst the Jews. But in addition, these Sages should have served as a prime example of perfect faith in Hashem. If their leadership would have been perfectly respected, their pure sense of truth would have dispelled any feeling of self-merit. It is quite possible that for this reason, the elders led the Jewish comeback at Ay (see verse 11). The Jewish people did learn their lesson, and as a response to this, they turned their focus upon the elders who best reflected perfect trust in Hashem.
Radak quotes another interpretation which states that many more should have fallen at Ay. However, the merit of Avraham Avinu’s building an altar on this very spot protected them. This theme is further expressed in Rashi’scommentary to Breishis 12:8. Therein Rashi explains that Avraham Avinu chose this particular spot for his altar because of his prophetic vision. He saw in the future that the Jewish people would stumble at Ay and he prayed on their behalf.
This insight requires serious reflection. Why was Ay, out of all Jewish shortcomings, the subject of Avraham’s vision? Furthermore, it seems logical that this defeat was shown to him in order to pray on behalf of his children. If so, why didn’t his intervention succeed in totally sparing the Jewish people? Finally, the Midrash in Breishis (39:16) understands that Avraham Avinu built this altar for the sole purpose of saving his children. The wording of the Midrash, well supported by Scriptures, places special focus on the actual building of the altar. What significance, if any, does the altar itself occupy in our episode?
(To be continued)
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