It once happened that the Russian tsar inspected his troops for their military preparedness. Lines of soldiers stood at attention as the tsar in his finest uniform passed between the ranks. The soldiers’ buttons glistened; their weapons spotless. The tsar stopped and questioned one soldier at random: “Private, should your commander issue an order to shoot me down would you obey?” The soldier trembled. “Shoot you, the glory of Mother Russia? Never!” “If that is your answer,” said the tsar, “you are a failure as a soldier. Every soldier must have an iron will and be prepared to carry out any and every order given by his commander.”
The tsar returned to his inspection. A short while later, he stopped and questioned another soldier in a farther rank. “Private,” demanded the tsar, “Should your commander issue an order to shoot me would you carry out that order?” Having heard the tsar reprimand the previous soldier he answered: “Yes, sir! I would shoot. An order is an order.” The tsar looked at him in the eye and said angrily: “Then you are a traitor to your emperor and to your country.”
The tsar continued with his inspection and came to a third soldier – a Jew. “Private,” said the tsar, “should your commander order you to shoot me would you do it?” “Yes,” said the Jew, “but I wouldn’t kill your majesty.” “How so?” asked the tsar, curious to hear the answer. “Your majesty, that is because all the bullets for our rifles are blanks.” The tsar immediately ordered an inventory of the munitions and discovered that indeed the Jew was correct. The generals had sold the real bullets on the black market and replaced the ammunition with blanks.
The anecdote explains a difficulty in the text. The Torah (Exodus 14:6) states that Pharaoh readied his chariot and took his army with him. The verse is seemingly straightforward: Pharaoh was prepared to lead his troops into battle in his chariot. However, consonant with the use of the conjunctive “vav” in Hebrew grammar, the verse could also be understood to mean that Pharaoh prepared his chariot but then took his army with him into battle. In other words, Pharaoh’s chariot was not available. What happened to it? Perhaps his generals had other plans for it – not necessarily for self-aggrandizement, but for making their escape from the God of the Hebrews. Sometimes the generals are wiser than their commander-in-chief.