If you would have collected a group of world-renowned military strategists, 40 years ago on Yom Kippur, Oct. 6, 1973, and asked them, at 4 p.m. Israel time, for a prognosis on the status of the events unfolding on the Golan Heights that afternoon, they would have probably told you Israel should be preparing the airport and shipping ports for a massive evacuation. And in all honesty, they would have been right.
Scarcely two hours after 2,000 Syrian tanks crossed the border with only two brigades (approximately 150 tanks) on the line, nearly 50 percent of Israel’s forces had been wiped out.
In the South, all along the Sinai border, hundreds of thousands of Egyptian troops had crossed the Suez canal and the famous Bar-Lev line was in tatters, with only three Israeli tanks trying to stem the tide. It appeared that the young State of Israel was about to become a distant memory.
And yet, just a few days later, the Syrian troops were in retreat, Israeli reserve divisions that were finally coming on line were rolling towards Damascus, and the entire Egyptian eighth army was on the verge of being surrounded. How did this happen? What turned things around?
Malcolm Gladwell, in his best selling book “The Tipping Point,” cites the example of Hush Puppies shoes, which were about to be phased out of production before skyrocketing, in just a few months, to become the best known shoes in America, to suggest that there is a “tipping point,” a series of seemingly insignificant events that combine to turn everything around and change the course of events.
Gladwell’s “tipping point” is what causes a disease to go from infecting a few scattered victims to becoming a fill fledged epidemic, turn the entire world economy around, or catapult an unknown artist to become a worldwide sensation in a matter of days.
Often, the actual moment or series of seemingly unconnected events goes unnoticed by everyone, including often even those who are themselves responsible for what subsequently transpires.
The story of Effie Eitam, a captain in an elite infantry reconnaissance unit on that fateful Yom Kippur afternoon, is a case in point.
Eitam was responsible for a small five-man recon unit that was on duty while most of the battalion had actually gone home on leave for Yom Kippur.
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By 2:15 that afternoon it was clear Israel was in dire straits and Effie and his small unit were sent north of the main base of Nafach to observe the Syrian forces and hopefully relay information back to base on enemy troop movements.
Division headquarters were in urgent need of an accurate picture of what was going on, as the scattered and panicked reports coming in over the radio became increasingly desperate.
As the commando unit deployed in the fields of the northeastern Golan, they were shocked to see over 400 Syrian tanks heading their way. They quickly realized that their eyes were not playing tricks with them and that there were, in fact, five Syrian brigades heading their way with not a single Israeli tank to stop them.
Being a forward reconnaissance unit, the commandoes only had one portable anti-tank weapon with them and Effie had to decide what to do. On the one hand, it was absurd to imagine that even if they succeeded in taking out one tank, it would make a difference to the course of the war, with hundreds of Syrian tanks only hours away from Haifa and Tel Aviv.
On the other hand, if you are an elite Israeli commando unit, and Syrian tanks are advancing on the towns and villages of your country, how can you not fire the anti-tank weapon you are holding? And then again, firing the weapon would clearly mark their position and probably bring a rain of tank shells down around them.
In the end, with what seemed to him to be no choice, Effie picked the tank with what seemed to have the most antennas (signifying a command-tank) and ordered his men to fire the missile.
Then inexplicably, as the tank they hit burst into flames, the entire Syrian advance stopped in its tracks. It was only years later, as a young colonel, that he finally had the opportunity to analyze the battle’s recon photos and radio reports, and discover that he had hit the tank of the forward battalion commander leading the advance. As a result of the confusion that ensued, and believing they might be heading into an ambush, the entire Syrian advance stalled for nearly six critical hours, by which time the first Israeli troops arrived at the front lines.
That single anti-tank shell, it seems, may well have been the tipping point in the Yom Kippur war. And even though the road for the IDF was still very much uphill, the point of no return had passed and the momentum switched sides.
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Is there always a tipping point? What of ourselves? Is there a tipping point of consciousness when we start to “get it,” when we come to an understanding that changes who we are and the way we look at life and allows us to turn our lives around and become all that we can be?
This week we will once again gather together in our synagogues and houses of study on what is considered the holiest day of the year: Yom Kippur.
At Yeshivat Orayta (www.orayta.org ), we have the privilege of gathering on our rooftop in the old City of Jerusalem, overlooking the Temple Mount and the Kotel. And as the sun sets on the horizon and the old city stones change colors giving Jerusalem its namesake of city of gold, we will recite the Kol Nidrei prayer, asking G-d and man to absolve us of all our vows, broken promises and intentions never realized.
The ultimate promise we hope to keep in this new year, is the promise of who we might be, and all that we might accomplish.
This is the week to consider what we hope to accomplish in the coming year, and what we wish to change. This is also the week to find our tipping point, that one moment of prayer or act of kindness for a fellow human being which will set us on the right path and turn everything around. May we be so blessed.
Best wishes for a sweet happy and healthy year, and a meaningful Yom Kippur.
From Binny Freedman in Jerusalem.