from the heart of jerusalem

Vayeshev: Is compromise always best solution?


Compromise is a challenging word, ranging from the noble to the naïve. How does one know when compromise is called for, and when it is actually a tragic mistake? 

In the military, compromise can be a dangerous thing, and orders, once received, must of necessity be carried out to the letter. But sometimes, when orders contravene principals, following those orders may be an unacceptable compromise, and the challenge is to know where the line one cannot cross actually lies.

In all the years I served in the Israeli army, I only once knowingly and willfully refused a   direct order, because it was a compromise I could not accept.

When I arrived at the Armored Corps Tank commander’s course, all the challenges I had faced till then were apparently not enough, and G-d must have decided to give me one more. As it turned out this one was a whopper, and it appeared in the visage of one 18-year-old baby-faced commander whom we shall call Rotem (not his real name).

I was the “religious” guy with the kippah on his head, and Rotem, who had grown up on a religious kibbutz, had dropped his kippah and any other vestige of his religious upbringing along the way. Whatever the reason, all the guys agreed that this sergeant had it in for me. I was always being “volunteered” for extra KP duty, or being spot-checked for knowing the material or being on top of my maneuvers. Finally one Friday, he went too far.

We were stuck on base for Shabbat, and Friday was spent servicing and cleaning the tanks we had been training on all week. W cleaned out the shell casings, serviced, checked and cleaned the machine guns, greased the tank treads, and completed a long checklist to insure that each tank would be battle worthy again after a week of maneuvers.

The sun was getting lower in the sky, and I took comfort in the fact that nothing could stop the sun from setting, and Shabbat was coming. In the Israeli army, there are no training maneuvers on Shabbat, only tasks related to actual military preparedness, so when you are in a course, everything pretty much stops on Shabbat save for a little bit of guard duty. I was looking forward to a nice long shower and a chance to catch up on sleep, of which one gets very little in sergeants’ course, and it took me a while to realize all the other guys had finished up and I was the only one left on the tank platform, along with Sergeant Rotem.

Every time I thought we were done, he would come up with another seemingly critical task that would not let me go. I was stuck in the belly of my tank, checking and re-checking things we had finished hours early, and I finally realized that he was trying to make some kind of point at my expense, though what it actually was eluded me.

“Organize the tool bins and make sure they are done … Check that all the tread wheels have been greased … Let’s run a spectronics (fire extinguishing system) test.”

These tests, each a particularly tiring task, had already been done that day. But the dead give-a-way that he was just having “fun” with me, was the expression on his face, almost daring me to argue or complain, and taking obvious pleasure in the frustration reflected on my face.

Finally, with about 15 minutes left till Shabbat, having finished the last of his sadistic orders, I jumped off the tank, ready to trot back up to the base and get showered. He waited till I had jumped down, picked up my gun and turned towards the base and, timing it perfectly, yelled out:

“Binny! Check the battery in the driver’s night vision equipment.”

This meant climbing back up onto the tank, turning the 24 volt back on, turning the turret aside where I could slide into the tiny driver’s compartment, maneuvering myself into the seat and closing the hatch, releasing the night scope from its tied up spot, removing it from its encasement, opening the battery and flipping it over, then inserting the night scope into its proper slot in the hatch and seeing if the battery worked and whether the appropriate green light in the scope indicated it was functioning properly, after which I would have to reverse all these procedures before leaving the tank as it was meant to be left, all of which would take longer than the 15 minutes I had left, not to mention the fact that I would be forced to enter Shabbat without a hot shower, covered as I was in oil and grease.

Recall that Sergeant Rotem was from a religious kibbutz, which meant he knew Shabbat was close and that he was pushing the limits here. I turned back around prepared, finally, to argue with him and explain that I would not make Shabbat on time. I realized it would be a waste of time, so I simply looked at him and said:

“Lo’ Yachol, ha’mefaked; Shabbat” (“Can’t do it sir; Shabbat”). Then I turned and walked away. 

It was at this point that he started screaming at me, demanding that I return and fulfill his orders, warning me I would be thrown out of the course, and asking me if I knew the consequences of disobeying a direct order. At which point I turned around, looked him square in the eye, and yelled back: “Me’tzapeh la’mishpat” (“I look forward to the [court-martial] trial”).

I never heard a subsequent word about that incident, and after that Rotem did not bother me again.

The question for me later on, was not whether it was the right thing to do; clearly there are principles one has to stick to and lines one cannot cross. The real question is how one knows when that point comes? How do we decide when to compromise, and when to hold the line? 

This week’s parsha, Vayeshev, may actually present us with the case par excellence of the compromise gone wrong, thus allowing us to consider the parameters for compromises in general.

The story of Joseph and his brothers is one of, if not the saddest, chapter in Jewish history, the first instance of a transgression between a man and his fellow (chet bein adam le’chaveiro’) ever to occur amongst Jews, which may explain why, nearly 4,000 years later, we still struggle with what actually went wrong.

In fact, some commentaries suggest that on Yom Kippur, the two central sacrifices are meant to gain forgiveness for the two central sins in Jewish history: the calf (par) for the sin of the golden calf, which marks the first instance the Jewish people transgress (or rebel) against G-d (chet bein adam la’makom), and the goat (sair) for the sin wherein the ten sons of Ya’acov dipped Joseph’s Technicolor coat in the blood of the goat in order to cover the heinous act of selling their own brother into slavery.

One of the reasons there is so much to learn from this story is that it is the first time such a transgression occurs in the Torah, which makes it the paradigm of such occurrences.  Thus, this is not just one more case of a Jew transgressing against his fellow Jew; it is the case study for such occurrences in general, and our ability to understand the mistakes made here may help us to better avoid such errors in the future.

The S’forno (Bereishit 37: 18), based on the Midrash Rabbah (Bereishit Rabbah 84:7) suggests that the brothers viewed Joseph as a rodef, which is the halachic definition of someone who is pursuing someone and threatening their life. In such an instance (as, for example, if someone is chasing me with a knife, and I believe my life to be in danger), Jewish tradition teaches that I am allowed to kill before being killed. And while the question of how the brothers could come to such an erroneous conclusion is a difficult one, one could understand the brothers’ perception that Joseph’s tale-bearing ways, and his favored position in their father’s eyes as witness the gift of the special coat (ke’tonet passim) could lead them to believe that he was edging them out of the family.

In fact, it may be that the debate between Joseph and his brothers was about the future of the fledging Jewish idea, and that just as Abraham had to choose between Yitzchak and Yishmael, and Yitzchak had to choose between Ya’acov and Eisav, so too Ya’acov would soon choose between Joseph and his brothers. 

Interestingly, of the 11 sons of Ya’acov (aside from Joseph), there were at least three who did not agree that Joseph should be killed. 

Binyamin was simply a youngster and was not, apparently, present. Re’uven, the eldest, clearly believes Joseph to be innocent, or at least not worthy of death, as he is the one to suggest that Joseph should not be killed immediately but thrown into a pit, in order to save him. And Yehuda, in a moment forged in time forever, suggests that they sell him to a passing Ishmaelite caravan.

And it is interesting to note that while Re’uven has in mind to save Joseph, he clearly does not succeed, because subsequent to his suggestion, Yehudah still has to convince them not to kill him, and they seem to be struggling with the question of whether to actually kill him or leave him in the pit to die. (Bereishit 37: 24-26)

So it seems that the brother who is least culpable in this situation is Yehuda, who at least saves Joseph’s life by affecting the compromise of selling him instead of killing him. And yet, the Talmud (Sanhedrin 6b) specifically takes Yehuda to task, suggesting that whomsoever praises Yehuda for his “compromise” is actually as good as cursing (or blaspheming) G-d!

On what grounds does Yehuda, in the eyes of Jewish tradition, merit such a severe critique? After all, it is Yehuda who ultimately saves his life, affecting the only compromise possible under the circumstances.

Joseph maintains his innocence, and Reuven wants to return him home, believing that he is not liable of death. But the brothers believe he is threatening their very existence, and feel he should indeed be killed. So Yehuda chooses the middle road, and compromises, neither killing him nor freeing him, instead selling him as a slave, where he will no longer be a threat, and neither will he be dead.

And if compromise is an ideal, then Yehuda should not be castigated, he should be praised!

Indeed the Talmud (in the same discussion in Sanhedrin 6b) rules clearly that a judge is obligated to do everything within his power to bring the parties to a compromise. So what was wrong with Yehuda’s actions, if in the end he actually succeeds in arriving at a compromise the brothers accept?

A compromise is a beautiful thing, and is indeed lauded in Jewish tradition as bringing peace, and even G-d, into the world. But it depends how the compromise is reached. A compromise is only of value if it is reached with the agreement of all parties concerned. But when a judge imposes his own compromise which is not accepted by the litigants or even one of the litigants, then that is not really a compromise at all.

As an example, imagine that you buy a used car, and when it is delivered, you find that it has no engine. So you track down the seller, who claims that he made it clear the car had no engine. So you go to the judge, who decides to reach a compromise, and tells the seller to give you half an engine! That’s not a compromise, that’s an abomination. And that may well have been Yehuda’s mistake.

The brothers, who believe Joseph to be liable of death, are at least consistent: they insist Joseph should be killed.

And Re’uven, who believes Joseph to be innocent, at least attempts to return him home to his father. But what does Yehuda believe? If indeed, he believes Joseph is innocent, then he should set him free. But when Yehuda compromises by selling Joseph as a slave, his compromise is at Joseph’s expense. If Joseph is innocent, and Yehuda believes this to be a possibility, how can he “compromise” by allowing him to be sold into slavery?

In other words, Yehuda’s responsibility was to convince the brothers to set Joseph free.  And perhaps the reason Jewish tradition takes Yehuda to task is because as terrible as the brothers’ actions were, at least they were acting according to their principles and beliefs, however mistaken they may have been. But Yehuda, who was compromising with what he knew in his heart to be right, was making a mistake of much graver proportions.

When we ignore what we know deep in our hearts to be right, especially when we impose compromises that conflict with those ideals, at the expense of others, and even with disregard for their pain, then we are not bringing peace into the world, we are inviting destruction and anarchy. We are no longer spreading love and light; we are fomenting hatred and allowing darkness.

Shabbat Shalom from Jerusalem.