THE PEOPLE & THE BOOK: Compromise is possible

Take away a young child’s favorite toy, even for a few seconds. The tantrum that ensues will illustrate the difference between a child and an adult.

Cartoon (photo credit: PEPE FAINBERG)
(photo credit: PEPE FAINBERG)
YOUNG CHILDREN see the world from precisely one perspective – their own. In their self-involved immaturity, they imagine that the world is entirely theirs, and often struggle to understand why they cannot have what they want, exactly when they want it.
Take away a young child’s favorite toy, even for a few seconds. The tantrum that ensues will illustrate the difference between a child and an adult. It takes time, growth, maturity, and the ability to think beyond oneself for children to overcome their naïveté, create space in their minds for the needs of others, and grow into adults who can thrive in a world filled with people of divergent needs. This growth comes at a cost: we call the price compromise, and it is a necessary part of every healthy human being’s life.
Deut. 6:17-18 suggests a pathway toward a life of maturity. The Torah text appears simple, but these still waters run deep: (6:17) Be sure to keep the commandments, decrees, and laws that God has enjoined upon you.
(6:18) Do what is right and good (hayashar vehatov) in the sight of God, that it may go well with you… Similar phrases, appearing in the Bible in close proximity, always draw the attention of commentators.
Here, they wonder about the juxtaposition of the imperative to observe all God’s laws and the command to do what is right and good in God’s sight. Why does the Torah need to say both? The great medieval scholar Rashi explains that verse 18 adds something vitally different to verse 17’s simple observance of the commandments: “Right and good” (hayashar vehatov) means compromise (peshara), and going beyond the letter of the law (lifnim mishurat hadin).
Rashi does not intend to play down the observance of the laws of the Torah. He indicates, though, that such laws cannot completely define the sum total of the task of being a thinking adult. Jewish law repeatedly recognizes that legal solutions should not be defined entirely by strict application of the law, urging judges to find compromise when they can (see Mishneh Torah Sanhedrin 22:4; Shulhan Arukh Hoshen Mishpat 12:2, among many others).
Human creativity and refined judgement are vital to the process of bringing conflicts to a just conclusion, which implies that the needs of each individual involved must be considered and accounted for as a legal solution takes shape. This flexible thinking is not foreign to Judaism at all, but integral to the core beliefs of our tradition. As the Talmud says (B. Taanit 20a): “A person ought to be flexible like a reed, and not unbending like a cedar.”
Rashi, in adding the concept of going beyond the letter of the law, implies that one must also consider what is best to do in any given situation, and how decisions may affect other human beings. A childish outlook follows rules to the exclusion of justice, simply because they are rules.
An adult approach allows one to apply the rules, but allows justice to emerge even when it is not quite in accordance with the strict letter of the law. This concept, then, urges us to handle situations like adults, with sophisticated understanding of what is right and wrong, not like children, who consider only their own needs and follow the strict wording of the law without understanding or caring about the impact on others.
The Babylonian Talmud provides us with a clear example of where this phenomenon can lead. Rabbi Yochanan states: Jerusalem was destroyed only because they judged according to to the law of the Torah. The students asked: should they have judged according to arbitrary decisors? Rather, [the problem was] they judged narrowly, and did not go beyond the letter of the law (B. Bava Metsia 30b).
These past few weeks, the Knesset has considered bill after harmful bill limiting democracy and privileging one tiny sliver of Jewish interpretation over all others, damaging the very fabric of the State of Israel and disenfranchising millions of Israeli citizens.
The converts and couples, divorces and burials, rabbis and institutions of the vast majority of the Jewish people have been attacked by a childish, petty and power-hungry Israeli chief rabbinate and their political cronies.
Destructively narrow judgments have erupted into divisive international battles over equal access to the Kotel for all Jews, and, even more importantly, respectful treatment of the various streams of Judaism in the State of Israel and abroad. At a time such as this, we need, more than ever, to heed the eternal insights contained in this powerful parasha. Let us all remember that compromise is possible.
In fact, it is desirable and necessary. So is a Judaism founded on the behavior of adults who can look beyond themselves and take into account the needs of others.
Taking such lessons to heart, and living by them, might just prevent the next destruction of Jerusalem.
Rabbi Aaron Panken, PhD, teaches Rabbinic Literature and serves as president of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, with campuses in Cincinnati, Jerusalem, Los Angeles and New York