This idea of "acharai" has deep roots in the Jewish tradition. Rashi offers an insightful explanation of an unusual turn of phrase in this week's Torah reading. Moshe is informed that he is about to die, and he asks God to appoint a new leader. Moshe says: "Let the Lord, the God of spirits of all flesh, appoint a man over the congregation, who will go out before them and come before them, who will lead them out and bring them in."
What is the meaning of the phrase "go out before them"? Rashi offers the following explanation:
"Not like the kings of the nations, who sit at home and send their armies to war, but as I [Moshe] did, for I fought against Sihon and Og."
Rashi's explanation offers a 1,000-year-old foundation for the idea of "acharai." A true leader does what Nahum Arieli did, and dashes first into battle.
But does "acharai" actually make sense? On a strategic level, it seems foolish to endanger the leader, who is the most important member of the team. And because of the "acharai" ethos, the Israeli army loses critical leadership. In Operation Protective Edge in 2014, 44% of the soldiers that fell in battle were officers. How can you replace so many leaders? At first glance, "acharai" seems to be a romantic gesture rather than a well thought out strategy.
But there is actually a great deal of strategic value to "acharai." In the Battle of Princeton, George Washington led the army right up to the front lines, and nearly got shot; his personal aide, Colonel Edward Fitzgerald, put his hat over his eyes to avoid seeing Washington's all but certain death. Washington's charge may seem like a rash act of courage; but it had a powerful impact on his troops. David McCullough quotes one of Washington's officers who wrote, “I shall never forget what I felt … when I saw him brave all the dangers of the field and his important life hanging as it were by a single hair with a thousand deaths flying around him. Believe me, I thought not of myself.” This dramatic display is one example of how Washington earned the love and respect of his soldiers. The following winter in Valley Forge, during an exceptionally difficult time, that love and respect is what kept the soldiers loyal to Washington. "Acharai" is not just how a commander leads; it is also why the soldiers follow.
Relationships are at the core of why "acharai" is so important in Jewish leadership. If you assess each soldier individually, you might say the commander needs to be offered much more protection; and historically, most armies have kept their officers away from the front lines. What this view overlooks is that an army is a holistic whole, and the commanders and the soldiers function as a team.
The Tanakh makes this point very powerfully at the beginning of the story of David and Bathsheva. At the opening of the narrative, the writer of the Book of Samuel makes a point of noting that David did not go out into battle with his army, saying: "David sent Joab with his officers and all Israel with him, and they devastated Ammon and besieged Rabbah; David remained in Jerusalem." David's failures begin when he sends his troops off and stays behind in comfort. And that triggers a series of events in which David sleeps with Bathsheva, the wife of an army officer, Uriah, and then David causes Uriah's death by sending him off into an impossible battle. David's decision to remain at home is a failure of leadership; and that failure is followed by multiple acts of corruption. A commander who is disconnected from his soldiers will lose his moral bearings as well.
"Acharai" also transforms the ordinary soldier. The commander works together with his soldiers as part of a team, and is their role model. This flattens the differences between commander and soldier; and when that happens, the soldier learns how to question and improvise, and become ready to take on leadership roles themselves. In the book “Startup Nation,” Dan Senor and Saul Singer argue that much of Israel's high-tech success can be traced back to its military culture; and they point to this lack of hierarchy as being critical to developing leadership and creativity within the ranks. A commander who fights side by side with his soldiers is not just leading them, but also teaching them how to lead.
From this week's Parsha to the IDF, "acharai" has been the motto of courageous leaders. And when leaders lead, both they and their followers are transformed.