Friday, September 9, 2016

"May you always think of compromise...' ? (Parashat Shoftim)

When I officiate at a wedding, at the ketubah signing or bedeken, I typically encourage the parents to bestow blessings upon their children.  Often, the parents read a blessing in English that I gave them to read.  And one of the lines in that prayer is:  “When you speak with your beloved, may you always know the joy of companionship.  When you see each other, may your eyes be filled with wonder at the miracle of your love.  When you disagree, may you always think of compromise.”

You may have noticed that the word “compromise” is a funny word.  I wondered:  what’s its etymology?  It has the word “promise” in it, so it  sounds like it means “promise together.”  I looked it up, and that’s exactly what its etymology is.  The original meaning of the word “compromise” is a promise that is made by two disputants, at the same time, that they will abide by the decision of someone else who is acting as the arbiter of their dispute.

The word “compromise” is also unusual in that it is not easy to tell whether it’s a word with a positive valence, or a negative valence.  On the one hand, when we say, “when you disagree, may you always think of compromise,” the word “compromise” sounds like something wonderful, that that solves conflicts, that encourages agreement and harmony.

But the word “compromise” also has a dark side - like if we say “He had to compromise his principles,” or “She was found in a compromising position,” or “the situation necessitated a moral compromise.”  In all these contexts, ‘compromise’ sounds like something horrible, something you would never want to do if you’re an ethical or principled person.

The Torah portion of Shoftim, from the end of the book of Deuteronomy, has something important to say about compromise, and when we ought to seek compromise, and when we shouldn’t.

The best known line from the beginning of that torah portion is tzedek tzedek tirdof - “Justice, justice shall you pursue.”  One of the first things you probably notice about this verse is that the word tzedek - “justice” - is repeated twice.  This leads all the commentators to ask the question:  What do we learn from its repetition twice?  In the Talmud, Tractate Sanhedrin (page 32b), there is a discussion of why the word is repeated twice, and one suggestion is echad le-din, ve-echad lif’sharah.  The first time that the word tzedek is mentioned, that means that you should follow strict justice and should be strongly principled.  The second use of the word tzedek refers to psharah, compromise. 

Then the Talmud goes on to present some scenarios.  Two camels are approaching each other, in opposite directions, on a narrow mountain pass, and they can’t both get through.  Someone’s going to need to back up so that the other one can get by.  Or another scenario:  two boats are approaching each other, in opposite directions, in a narrow canal, and one boat will need to back up so the other can get by.   Sometimes it’s clear which one should back up and defer to the other.  For example, if one boat is full, and one boat is empty, it makes sense for the empty boat to back up, and defer to the boat that is full of people or cargo. 

But sometimes the two boats, or the two camels, are both ‘in the right,’ and there’s no obvious choice which one should defer to the other.  In such a case, if you adopt the perspective of strict justice, they both will stay exactly where they are, and neither one will back up, and you have gridlock.  Because of their strong adherence to principle and to justice, neither boat gets where it’s going.  The only way they will actually get where they are trying to go is if they develop some kind of compromise - for example, one camel, or one boat, backs up, allowing the other camel, or boat, to proceed, and then if necessary gives some kind of small compensation to the one who backed up, so everyone is happy (or happy enough).

The medieval commentator Rashi wrote on this section in the Talmud, tzedek din shelach ve-tzedek psharah shelach, lefi re’ot einecha, ve-lo tirdof et ha-echad yoter mei-chavero.  “You shall pursue justice when it’s appropriate, and pursue compromise when compromise is appropriate, and you shouldn’t pursue one of these more than the other.”  In other words, if you are finding that you are always compromising, you may not be sticking strongly enough to your principles.  But if you are finding that you are rarely compromising, then you need to show some more humility.

Sometimes it’s the people who are most deeply principled, who are the most passionate about a cause, and who burn with a passion for justice, who are the hardest to get along with.  Sometimes they have such a strong sense of right and wrong that they have difficulty accepting other people’s point of view, they have problems with anger, and they are generally less effective at promoting their agenda than people who have an easier time reaching a compromise.  And then at the same time, people who are willing to compromise all the time are equally unappealing; they either resemble doormats, or they resemble politicians who have no principles and are willing to say anything to get elected.  (Not that I will admit to having have anyone specific in mind in our American political culture today who embodies either of these paradigms….)  But clearly our political culture is getting more and more polarized, as more and more votes in congress or in state and local legislatures take place strictly along party lines or faction lines, and it becomes rarer and rarer for people to reach across the aisle. and forge alliances or build bridges with natural adversaries.)  And sadly, Israel has also weathered several crises in recent years that have highlighted the difficulties of cross-faction cooperation there as well.

In our personal lives, and in national life in the United States, in Israel, and throughout the world, we pray that leaders will embrace the wisdom of the Talmud, that a recipe for justice involves echad le-din ve-echad lif’sharah, finding the right balance between unyielding attachment to principles, and a willingness to consider compromise.

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