World of the Sages: Taking the first step

Seeking a compromise between two opposing positions is never an easy task, though it is certainly a valiant pursuit.

Seeking a compromise between two opposing positions is never an easy task, though it is certainly a valiant pursuit. Conciliation becomes even more exigent when the honor of the quarreling parties is involved. Expounding on the verse: "Who is like the Wise One, and who knows an issue's compromise," (Ecclesiastes 8:1) the Talmud credits God with effecting a settlement between two righteous biblical characters - the prophet Isaiah and the king Hizkiyahu (B. Berachot 10a). Our sages relate that these greats could not agree on whose honor was greater. The commentators are quick to note that the conflict did not stem from a desire for personal honor, rather the parties demanded respect for the office in which they were serving (Rabbi Ya'akov Ibn Haviv, 15th-16th centuries, Spain-Portugal-Salonika). With no ties between the two men, the religious leader, Isaiah, was unable to carry God's message to Hizkiyahu, the political ruler. Hizkiyahu, being the monarch of the Kingdom of Judah, felt that it was incumbent on Isaiah to pay him a visit. Hizkiyahu buttressed his claim with the weight of precedent, noting that Elijah the prophet was commanded to go before Ahav, sovereign of the Kingdom of Israel, and did summon Ahav to appear before him (I Kings 18:2). Elijah acted upon a divine directive and hence the king concluded: "Clearly the honor due to the monarch is greater than the honor due to a prophet, and Isaiah should rightly come before me." Indeed, elsewhere the Talmud concludes that a Jewish sovereign is not at liberty to forgo the honor due to him. A Jewish monarch is a delegate and representative of God; as such, renouncing the honor due to the temporal king would constitute a dishonor to the King of Kings (B. Kiddushin 32a-b; B. Sotah 41b). Isaiah, however, countered that his predecessor Elijah was merely following an ad hoc divine command. Normative practice should follow the example set by Ahav's son, Yehoram, a king of Israel who paid a visit to the prophet Elisha when the monarch sought assistance (II Kings 3). "The honor of God's servant, therefore, is of greater weight than that of the ruler and Hizkiyahu should properly come before me," claimed the prophet (Hida, 18th century, Eretz Israel-Italy). Faced with this stalemate, God caused Hizkiyahu to fall ill and commanded Isaiah: "Go and visit the sick." In this way the Almighty deftly overcame the deadlock without a clear determination of the disagreement at hand, and the two leaders were brought together. Elsewhere in rabbinic literature we have another case of two leaders unwilling to bridge a gap between them (Bereshit Rabbah 60:3 and parallels). In this instance, however, there was no Divine mediation and the upshot was tragic. Yiftah was appointed to lead Israel against the warring Kingdom of Ammon. Following a round of unsuccessful negotiations, Yiftah was forced to fight. Before heading to battle, Yiftah vowed to God: "If You will deliver the children of Ammon into my hands, then whatever comes out of the doors of my house to meet me, when I return in peace from the children of Ammon, shall surely be the Lord's, and I will offer it up as a burnt offering." Following a successful campaign, Yiftah returned home to be greeted by his only child dancing out to meet him and playing timbrels. Upon this sight, Yiftah rent his garments as he remembered his vow: "Alas, my daughter, you have brought me very low, and you have become the cause of trouble for me; for I have opened my mouth to the Lord, and I cannot go back." Stoically, the young girl accepted her fate (Judges 11). Was Yiftah truly bound by this awful vow? Vows can generally be annulled and the sages are critical of the stalemate implied in this passage: the High Priest, Pinhas, could have released Yiftah from his vow, yet it appeared that Pinhas deemed it inappropriate for the religious authority to approach the political ruler. Meanwhile, Yiftah was hesitant to approach Pinhas, seeing it as unbefitting for him to pay a visit to a religious persona. As the two leaders stubbornly stood their ground, the young girl lost her life in heartrending circumstances. Rabbinic tradition never juxtaposes the two cases of leaders indisposed to forgo their honor, so we cannot be sure why our tradition depicts God interfering in the standoff between Hizkiyahu and Isaiah, while taking a laissez-faire approach to the impasse between Yiftah and Pinhas, a decision that had dire consequences for Yiftah's unfortunate daughter. Our sages merely leave us with a taste of the hazard of obstinately demanding honor, even if it may be justified. In a sense, the intransigent and often dogmatic approach of the two parties, each unwilling to take the first step towards reconciliation, is a tension that exists in our relationship with God. At the end of the poetic lamentation over the destruction of Jerusalem and the First Temple, we beseech the Almighty: "Return us to you, O Lord, and (then) we will return" (Eicha 5:21), imploring God to take the first step in the rehabilitation of our chosen status. God's response to this plea is encapsulated in the words of the prophet: "Return to me, and (then) I will return to you" (Malachi 3:7), placing the onus on us to initiate the bridging of the chasm between us and the Almighty. If this parallel can be taken a step further, it is interesting that both stories - the Hizkiyahu-Isaiah stalemate and the Yiftah-Pinhas stalemate - place the blame squarely on the shoulders of both parties. Cessation of relations is not the sole responsibility of one side; both factions must bear responsibility: Hizkiyahu and Isaiah, Yiftah and Pinhas, and seemingly our people as well as God. Perhaps our sages vividly describe these episodes in the hope that our rapport with God can be restored without the need for dire outcomes to bring about reconciliation. Let us hope that our nation need not suffer the tragedy of Yiftah's family nor be as ailing as Hizkiyahu before God is driven to pay a visit to His people.