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Bet Israel Masorti Synagogue

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19 Yehuda Hanasi St., POB 437, Netanya 4210300, Israel
Phone: 972-(0)9-862-4345

Parshat Matot Masei 2020

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“Keplen, give an inch!” begs Bessie Shimmelfarb in the hysterical stories of Leo Rosten in “The Education of Hyman Kaplan.” Kaplan in an immigrant to the US trying to learn English in night school, but by his own rules, of course. And he splits the class into two camps 鈥 those with him and those against him. “Keplen, give an inch,” she wails. Compromise. To which Kaplan answers (at one point), “You can’t measure right and wrong by a ruler.”

Compromise. Larry David called a good compromise “when both parties are dissatisfied.” Ludwig Erhard said: A compromise is the art of dividing a cake in such a way that everyone believes he has the biggest piece.” The two parshot we read today, Matot and Masei, which complete book four and basically conclude the Torah from Sinai, are full of compromises. We will examine three of them.

The first comes when the tribes of Reuven and Gad hesitantly ask Moshe: Do we really have to cross over the Jordan and enter Canaan? “The land on this side is great for cattle and sheep, and we have cattle and sheep.”

D茅j脿 vu makes Moshe furious. First he berates them: Will your brothers cross over and fight for their land and you will just live here in peace? And then the real reason bursts forth: Didn’t you learn from the 10 spies who caused the Israelites to refuse to enter Canaan 38 years ago? Weren’t 40 years in the desert enough for you?

The two tribes then joust verbally with Moshe until a compromise is reached. The tribes will first build pens for their cattle and homes for their families. No no no! First homes for families and then pens for cattle (the order is important). Then they will lead the people. No no no. They will march in front of God. (better).

After a compromise is reached, half of the tribe of Menashe is added, as a bridge between the two sides of the Jordan. Obstacle one is neutralized.

Second, cities of refuge are to be designated for perpetrators of involuntary manslaughter (as determined by the courts). How is this a compromise? Well, the prevailing custom was for a family member to avenge any killing by killing the killer and being immune to prosecution.

What the cities of refuge did was to take the established custom (blood for blood), which could not be abolished (it was too deeply ingrained) and instead impose reasonable restrictions. It had to be accidental. The killer was safe in the city of refuge but if he ventured out 鈥 he was fair game for the avenger. For how long? As long as the high priest lived. As soon as he died, all those taking refuge in these cities could go home and killing them would be treated as murder. This was a compromise between tradition and fairness.

And the third compromise was a reprise of the story of the daughters of Zelophchad, those who asked and received permission to inherit their father’s land because there were no sons. Now it was other members of their tribe who complained: if they marry whomever they want, their land could become part of the inheritance of the husband, in another tribe, and we will lose! To which the answer comes down. They are right and you are right too! And those who say both sides can’t be right 鈥 you’re right too!

The daughters can marry whomever they want, but they should be from their own tribe: to prevent the transfer of land from one tribe to another. And so both sides win, although it can be argued that the daughters lose a bit of their freedom of choice. Compromise!

We see the need for compromise in almost every decision a government has to make. For example, now: are the economy and mental health more important than physical health?

It’s fair to say that Moshe had an easier time making compromises than we do today, first because he had support from the Highest Source, and second because there were only two sides to most arguments.

Today, with our polarized political parties, we have dozens of sides. If we can believe them, each party feels that its approach is the best and only choice. Some say our present government of 34 ministers is a compromise, others that it is an obstacle to compromise. Only time will tell.

Sadly, the side that stands to lose the most, and who has no direct representation, is the population at large (Knesset members represent their parties, not the people). This is where demonstrations become important. Some of our leaders make sure to include a quotation from the Torah or other Jewish sources in their speeches, to justify their actions and flaunt their Yiddishkeit. But it is only lip service. They would be more truthful if they quoted Marx who said, “I have my principles, and if you don’t like them 鈥 I have others.”

Shabbat Shalom


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