Choosing love over justice: The sacred duty of compromise

Each morning when I put on my tefillin, I feel so privileged. Indeed, when davening, I like to remind myself that when I notice that the right strap is made to be longer than the left strap, it is so the ethic of chesed (love and kindness) should trump that of gevurah/din (strength, judgment). But as I place my tefillin back into their cases, I usually have a thought pass through my head: How will I ensure today that I make manifest my potential for gentle loving kindness more greatly than my potential for absolute truth and exercising power for strict justice?
From these straps exudes an entire lesson on the virtue of compromise. Sadly, this teaching hasn't been emphasized enough in contemporary Jewish thought, namely that the values of compromise place peace as preeminent over truth, and that we need to perceive people with grace over judgment.
Indeed, consider this Midrashic passage: “Greater is that which is said about Aharon than that which is said about Moshe. Regarding Moshe, it is said that only men wept for him, whereas for Aharon both the men and the women wept, because he pursued peace and loved peace and placed peace between a man and his wife and between a woman and her friend,” (Midrash Aggadah, Parshat Chukat, Chapter 2). How are we to consider this perplexing passage? If Moshe is the paradigmatic leader for all of humankind, then how is it that only one gender wept for him?
The passage of Moshe and Aharon is representative of human potential for compromise. If Moshe shows love by being strict and tough in his demeanor towards his flock, then Ahraon is a transformative leader who doesn’t lead from a distance but walks among the people, building and healing fractured relationships. It is a dialectical tussle between love and justice, where love is the redoubtable victor over justice.
The art of compromise is demanding and arduous and all of us have much to learn. So much more work needs to happen on global, national, and interpersonal fronts. But first, we must consider our own egos, not letting our latent tribal tendencies take hold of our better nature. We must be willing to retract on our absolutes for the sake peace on Earth.
One might think that absolutism is a sign of strength. If one has “moral clarity” then they shouldn’t budge on their well-heeled position. Judaism proposes a novel, almost counterintuitive, approach, arguing that compromise is the approach of the wise:
Rabbi Yehoshua ben Karcha says, It is a mitzvah to seek compromise. As it is written, “Truth and peaceful judgment should you judge in your gates. It would seem that where there is judgment there is no peace, and where there is peace there is no judgment. What is the judgment that incorporates peace? Compromise (Sanhedrin 6b).
The rabbis applied value to religious compromise. In the Talmud, Rabbi Yochanan is quoted as saying that Jerusalem was destroyed in the time of the Romans only because the people judged according to the Torah (Bava Metzia 30b). The astonished reply is, “What kind of judgment should they have applied — that of the sorcerers?” The reply: “What Rabbi Yochanan meant was that litigants insisted on strict enforcement of the law and were unwilling to compromise.” Rambam affirms this value for religious compromise (Hilchot Sanhedrin 22:4).
This is not only true for political matters, but for financial matters also:
When Rabbi Nehuniah ben ha-Kaneh was asked the secret of his unusual longevity, one of the traits he mentioned was: “I was always willing to yield in monetary matters” (Megillah 28a).
One’s character is not solely measured by their ideals, but also by how they’re willing to compromise for the sake of preserving human dignity. There are, of course, values that should not be compromised. But for the sake of peace, often we must compromise our upper hand even when we feel certain of the truth. Rashi taught that doing “the right and the good” “refers to a compromise, within the letter of the law” (Devarim 6:18).
We are to focus more on building a world of compassion, healing, and peace rather than on strict truth, strict law, and punishment. Where can we take the higher road in our own lives today? And looking beyond on the personal, how can we take these spiritual notions of compromise into the realms of government and business? God knows they need it as well. It is our duty to work towards compromise no matter the circumstance, in order so the world will become more just, more equitable, and more peaceful. It may be difficult, but it’s a sacred imperative.
The Talmud teaches that God prays to God’s self (Berachot 7a):
May it be My will that My mercy may suppress My anger, and that My mercy may prevail over My [other] attributes, so that I may deal with My children in the attribute of mercy and, on their behalf, stop short of the limit of strict justice .
If God, as it were, were to pray for God’s own kindness to prevail over justice then all the more so, our own prayers should be filled with such intentions.
Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the Executive Director of the Valley Beit Midrash, the Founder & President of Uri L’Tzedek, the Founder and CEO of The Shamayim V’Aretz Institute and the author of seven books on Jewish ethics. Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top 50 rabbis in America.