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Shabbat Tisha B'Av: Cacophony and Compromise 2018

07/27/2018 01:10:32 PM


Rabbi Amy J Sapowith

           Last week Sonja and I were having Shabbat dinner in L.A. at the home of old friends’ of mine and their twin teenagers who are preparing to begin college in the Fall.  We were seated at their Shabbat table on the patio: candles, wine, challah all set to go. 

            “If you want to do or say anything special just let us know,” says Adam—someone I’ve known since middle school. We have a long history together.

            “Don’t make her do a d’var Torah, she’s on vacation!” says his husband, Mark.

            “I’m not,” starts in Adam—the two of them have a quaint touch of the Bickersons.

            They begin singing the blessing over the candles—using the Chanukah tune!  I interrupted and redirected to the Shabbat tune.  “Oh yeah,” they agreeably switch tunes.

            “Long or short Kiddush?” asks Mark—he’s the chair of the Urology Dept at UCLA and also a mohel.  “You want to do the long Kiddush, don’t you?”

            And I explained why we do the long Kiddush.  The short Kiddush blesses God for creating the fruit of the vine. That’s good for any time.  But to sanctify the day of Shabbat, we have to actually say that we’re sanctifying Shabbat.  If you read the translation on p. 123 you’ll see that that’s what the long kiddush does. 

            “There it is, there’s your d’var Torah after all,” says Mark. And of course we followed with the motzi where east and west coast versions of the song had a chance to compete—but we let the cacophony stand for itself and just smiled.

            I wish I could say the same for the cacophony that is taking over the airwaves here and across the oceans.  Tribalism. Hyper-partisanship. Distrust. Intolerance. Our president equivocates about whether the Russians interfered in our election process and whether to hand over an American diplomat to the Russians for questioning?  In Israel a liberal Israeli rabbi, of the conservative Masorti movement no less, is arrested for officiating at a wedding—woken up at 5 am by the Haifa police and arrested?!  I briefly tuned in this morning to an analysis of the state of cybersecurity in our country led by cybersecurity experts from Microsoft. There I heard again how the goal of our foreign enemies who insert themselves into our social media is to create and amplify the cacophony, to incite and bring about the fall of liberal democracies, to convince their oppressed people and other aspiring masses of democracy’s folly: “Is this what you want?” they point and jeer.  “Look at the chaos?  Our system is better.”

            To counter such an insidious attack, I am reaching the conclusion that the most radical act we can commit is the compromise. 

            In the Talmud it has been taught: The first use of the word “justice” refers to a decision based on strict law; the second use of the word “justice” refers to a compromise. How so? For example, two boats meet on a river. If both try to pass at the same time, they will collide and both will sink.  But if one makes the way for the other, both can go through without accident.

            In the same way, two camels meet on the road up to Beth Haran. If they both keep climbing the road at the same time, both may fall down into the valley below.  But if one goes first and the other afterward, they can both go up safely.

            How should they decide who goes first?  If one camel is laden with goods and the other is unladen, the unladen should give way to the laden.  If one is closer to the destination than the other, the one that is farther away should step aside for the other.

            But if both are equal distance from their destination, they should compromise, with the one who goes first compensating the other for giving way (BT Sanhedrin 32b).

It is also said that it was a failure to compromise, a takeover by the zealots, that led to the destruction of the Jerusalem temple—the destruction we lament on the holiday of Tisha B’av, which begins tomorrow evening: the destruction that was the result of a takeover by zealots who wanted war with the Romans and who were therefore willing to provoke war.  The extremists were in turn unwittingly aided by the inability or unwillingness of moderates to compromise among themselves in order to stave off the extremists’ violent zeal.

The liberal order that we live by, in its classic definition: an order based on free individuals and elected representatives applying reason to solve problems, depends on compromise for effective governance. This Tisha B’av, we not only mourn the destruction of the Temple, we mourn the rise of zealotry and the destruction of the political will to compromise.  And the antidote is to rebuild not the Temple, but this political will.

In our own lives, we should commit to compromise. Silly compromises, small compromises as well as significant compromises.  Following Maimonides’s wisdom about how to develop one’s character, we should go overboard in what and when we compromise until it becomes second nature.  We need to study this Talmudic text and others and determine what would be a fair compensation for a compromise. Here at synagogue, we should use our upcoming building improvement project as our own laboratory for creating this will and strengthening our ability to compromise. If we can do it around questions of design and color and artistic vision, we can have hope for our country! 

 When the world feels cacophonous, the quote by Ahad Ha’am makes the most sense to me. “More than the Jews have kept Shabbat, Shabbat has kept the Jews.” Shabbat promises a space of rest; a respite from the outrage and the chaos.  And in this more peaceful space, we can regroup and repurpose; we may even glimpse a path forward that brings promise—and at this time, bring com-promise, pronounced another way: compromise. Let’s com-promise our way through the cacophony.  Begin personally and locally and small, even silly—and we will build a wall, a sacred wall—against zealotry—and we will pass through as through the Reed Sea to a future not of any one person’s or camp’s or party’s making, but a result of a healthy take and give.  Give and take.

Keyn y’hi ratzon.

Wed, March 29 2023 7 Nisan 5783