5777 Compromise: The Hallmark of a Healthy Society
As our country struggles through the dog days of democracy in distress, it is not enough to lament the loss of civility and the death of bipartisan legislation. We should also find examples of compromise and selflessness to hold up and emulate.
We see a very early example of just such compromise in our Torah portion, “Mattot” (Numbers chapter 32). It deals with the first permanent settlement of any of the tribes of Israel in what was to become their homeland.
The scene is hopefully familiar to us from Shabbat attendance and Sunday school: In the final year of the desert generation, the children of Israel have defeated Sichon, King of the Amorites, and Og, King of Bashan, and come into possession of their territory (basically, the Golan Heights and the East Bank of the Jordan River). The Israelites were bound for the West Bank of the Jordan, the Promised Land. But two and a half of the tribes, Reuven, Gad, and half the clans of Menasheh, recognized that the newly conquered territories would be ideal for the ranching that was the mainstay of their economy. They proposed to Moses that they settle there, forfeiting their claim to land west of the Jordan.
It would seem to be a “win-win”, with the remaining tribes also benefitting from the self-interest of the two and a half tribes by gaining more living space. But Moses was not happy. He had a strong sense of the centrality of Israel proper in the Jewish imagination, and he feared that the willingness to settle outside the promised borders of the land would constitute a vote of no confidence in God, Who had issued the promises. Such a vote, at the time of the scouts in the second year of the Wilderness sojourn, had led to disaster for the previous generation. Moses berated the tribal leaders.:
Here, you’ve gotten up in your fathers’ place, a group of
sinners, to add more onto the LORD’s flaring anger at
Israel. If you go back from behind Him, then He’ll add
more to leave them in the wilderness, and you’ll have
destroyed all of this people! (Numbers 32:14-15)
It is at this point that we see the maturity of the desert-raised generation. Whereas the record of the Israelites until now was one of “kvetch, kvetch, kvetch”, this time, the tribes made a meaningful counter-offer. They were not proposing to abandon their cousins from the other tribes. No; they would serve as vanguard troops, fighting alongside their kin, and not retiring to their own territory until all the people had been settled. (Numbers 32:16-19)
Moses accepted the counterproposal, albeit somewhat ungraciously. (Numbers 32:20-32). His skepticism is understandable, since the Israelites had failed time and again during his tenure as their leader, and he himself had shared in the consequences of their failure. He was doomed to die in the desert along with the Exodus generation. But having given them the appropriate conditions, and seeing them prepare to fulfill them, he then formally granted them the inheritance they sought. (Numbers 32:33)
Meaningful negotiation, including real compromise—that is how a society avoids splitting fatally, each of its factions retreating to its corner of the boxing ring and rousing only its own supporters.
America, the Bible has more to teach you than either of our political parties fully knows!
Rabbi Michael Panitz
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