A rich North Carolina man decided that he wanted to throw a party and invited all of his buddies and neighbors. He held the party around the pool in the backyard of his mansion. At the height of the party, the host said, "I have a 10-foot alligator in my pool, and I'll give a million dollars to anyone who has the nerve to jump in."

The words were barely out of his mouth when there was a loud splash. Everyone turned to see one of the guests, Leroy, in the pool! Screaming and thrashing, he fought the gator with every ounce of strength he had. The water churned and splashed as man and gator battled to the finish. Finally, Leroy strangled the gator and let it float to the top like a dead goldfish. He then slowly climbed out of the pool.

Everybody stared at him in disbelief. Finally, the host said, "Well, Leroy, I reckon I owe you a million dollars."

"No, that's okay. I don't want it," said Leroy.

The rich man insisted, "I have to give you something. You won the bet. How about half a million bucks then?"

"No thanks. I don't want it," answered Leroy.

Confused, the rich man asked, "Well, Leroy, then what do you want?"

Leroy said, "I want the name of the idiot who pushed me in the pool!”

Give It All You Got

In this week’s Torah portion, we gain a powerful insight into human nature through an interesting law related to warfare.

The verse says: “And [the Israelites] warred against Midian, as G‑d had commanded Moses.”1]

While the Torah does not state explicitly what it was that G‑d commanded Moses regarding war, our sages understood this to refer to the following law of combat.

Maimonides explains: “When laying siege on a city to conquer it, we do not surround it from all four sides, but only from three sides, leaving a way to escape for anyone who wishes to flee for his life. As it is written: ‘And they warred against Midian, as G‑d commanded Moses’; it has been handed down by tradition that this is what G‑d had commanded him.”2

Nachmanides, in his commentary on the Book of Commandments, expounds on the above: “It is from this commandment that we learn to deal with compassion even with our enemies, even at times of war.” He then goes on to give a second explanation: “In addition, by giving our enemies a place to flee to, they will not charge at us with as much force.”3

The first explanation is ethical, the second is strategic: the former seeks to protects our enemies, the latter is aimed at protecting ourselves. For if we allow our enemies no escape, we eliminate any chance of their retreat, leaving them with no choice but to fight to the death.

The moment we back our enemies into a corner, the fight is no longer motivated by political or ideological interests, but by existential instincts. Staring death in the eye, our enemies will fight like their lives depend on it, because they do. The dynamics of war may suddenly tip in favor of those for whom the fight is not about winning, but surviving. Fighting from a position of strength and security, then, can sometimes translate into weakness on the battlefield.

And here we come to a truth that was known to the ancients: sometimes in order to win, you must have everything to lose.

Take Julius Caesar, for example. As a Roman general, he was strictly forbidden from bringing his troops into Italy. But on January 10, 49 BCE, Caesar led his army across the Rubicon River, a northern boundary of Italy, effectively starting a civil war. Upon committing this flagrant act of treason, Julius knew he would be executed if he did not triumph.

Just before crossing the Rubicon, Caesar is reported to have said, "Alea iacta est," "The die is cast.” Just as all bets are irrevocable once the die is thrown, so, too, in crossing the Rubicon, Caesar made a decision that could not be revoked. Today, the term "crossing the Rubicon" is an idiom that means deliberately proceeding beyond the point of no return.

And there were those who did more than set an irrevocable process in motion, but deliberately destroyed their escape routes in an effort to fight bolder and better. One such incident took place in the year 1519 BCE, during the Spanish conquest of Mexico. Hernán Cortés, the Spanish commander, scuttled his ships so that his men would have to conquer or die.

Another such incident took place in 711 BCE, when Muslim forces invaded the Iberian Peninsula. The commander, Tariq ibn Ziyad, ordered his ships to be burned. Similarly, certain military leaders would command their troops to burn down a bridge after crossing it, in order to leave their soldiers with no choice but to advance. This is the source of the idiom “burn one’s bridges.”

So in its laws about war, the Torah teaches us not just how to survive, but how to live. Whatever you commit yourself to in life, the Torah is saying, do so fully, wholeheartedly, and without reserve. By creating and maintaining potential escape routes in our jobs and relationships, we are setting ourselves up for failure.

I am reminded of a beautiful story told about the Rebbe: A successful teacher once sought the Rebbe’s advice regarding his next career move. The school where he’d taught for 13 years was opening a second branch in another city, and he’d been offered the position of principal.

“While I’m comfortably settled in my current job, taking on a more challenging role might be good for me,” the teacher said. He paused, and then ventured: “Besides, if the new school fails, my current school has promised to hold a teaching position for me, so I’ll always have that to fall back on.”

The Rebbe’s response was candid. “If this new position is attractive because your old job remains available in the event of failure, then you should stay in your old job,” he counseled. “Only commit to the new job if you truly believe that failure is not an option. That mindset will help ensure that you make your new job succeed.”

And the same is true of relationships. If you enter a relationship with a contingency plan, you have, by definition, undermined the chances of its survival. For at the first hint of challenge or the need to compromise, both part and parcel of any normal relationship, you will avail yourself of the escape routes you have created. There is nothing that corrodes unconditional commitment—which is essential to any relationship that demands more give than take at times—like a break clause.

I find it fascinating that marriage used to be called wedlock, which conveys a seemingly outdated approach to marriage where both partners are completely locked into their relationship through irrevocable bonds of commitment and love.

And while I understand that there are times when the key to that lock needs to be retrieved to unlock and undo an unhealthy marriage where there is abuse and neglect, G‑d forbid, it strikes me that many of today’s marriages can better be compared to relationships where the lock is left open to begin with . . .

There are certainly other contributing factors to the breakdown of relationships and the alarming rate of failed marriages, like an increase in narcissism and self-centeredness, but, undoubtedly, if we would so to speak “seal off our exits” when entering serious relationships, they would be deeper, stronger and more lasting.