Benjamin Lau

The Knesset’s Pyrrhic victory

The desire to subjugate the other side threatens the Jewish homeland; now, everyone must set aside being right in favor of peace
Coalition lawmakers take a celebratory selfie in the Knesset plenum, as they pass the first of the judicial overhaul laws, July 24, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Coalition lawmakers take a celebratory selfie in the Knesset plenum, as they pass the first of the judicial overhaul laws, July 24, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

In Hebrew writing in my rabbinic world, letters and articles often conclude with the phrase “and truth and peace loved” — a verse from Zechariah foreseeing an idyllic time when truth and peace will exist harmoniously side by side. This phrase, which is ostensibly conciliatory, is generally used in the context of a heated and bitter debate, fierce and uncompromising, with the writers invoking the words of the prophet to indicate that despite their love of peace, they are zealously committed to the value of truth.

The choice of truth over peace is our tragedy today in the State of Israel, the promised land that we inherited from our ancestors. People of truth are leading their political parties with zeal and devotion. They were chosen to represent the will of their voters and will not deviate one iota from their doctrine of truth, until they reach their long-awaited victory.

But victory over whom?

The Talmud contrasts the figure of Moses, the man of truth, with the figure of Aaron, the man of peace (Sanhedrin 6b). What is expected of Aaron is different from what is demanded of Moses. Moses is a leader whose actions are based on the power of God’s great arm. In this respect, he will always be called a “man of truth.” The truth of Moses is Divine, not sectoral. It is an absolute and complete truth.

Aaron was never chosen to be a leader who guides or decides. His role is not that of a judge or a navigator; he is a priest. Aaron’s role is to promote peace in the camp of Israel and, through peace, to bring the Divine Presence to rest on the people of Israel. Promoting peace obligates him to always act in a manner that is temperate and characterized by compromise; the water that flows from him is tepid, while the water that flows from Moses is boiling. Is compromise an expression of truth in the world? Apparently, it is not, for the Talmud teaches that where there is truth there is no compromise, and where there is compromise there is no truth (Sanhedrin 6b).

And yet, which is preferable — truth or compromise? Is it possible to live in a world that is based only on uncompromising law? It is not, for the Talmud teaches that Jerusalem was destroyed because decisions were limited to the letter of the law (Bava Metzia 30b). The priest is entrusted with the value of lifnim meshurat hadin — going beyond the letter of the law. That is why the high priest atones for the people of Israel.

The election of politicians who will spearhead policy with a distinct ideological flavor is a matter of personal and public choice. Political leaders are the representatives of the voters, and the world and worldviews of these public emissaries express the will of the majority that elected them. But once those partisan representatives become the elected government, they can no longer be sectoral. They have the status of “malchut” – kingship – and must consider the needs of the entire kingdom.

Any child who has lived in Israel during the past six months knows that the great task that has been assigned to our public emissaries is to create shalom bayit – peace within our home. But our elected officials have failed in this task and have chosen their personal truth and the truth of their constituents, ignoring the need for peace.

The victory of Israel’s coalition in passing the reasonableness law is another boulder that is plunging us into the abyss. The power and schadenfreude that we saw, the arrogance and blindness that were displayed, were expressed by people who have defeated their brothers and sisters in their own home.

It is clear that there are situations in which we must invoke the value of truth, in line with the principle ascribed to Moses “yikov hadin et hahar” – let strict justice pierce the mountain (Sanhedrin 6b). But there are also situations in which we must abandon truth in the interest of peace. The Netziv, Rabbi Naftali Berlin of Volozhin, taught us in his responsum:

“If the law cannot bring about peace, it is necessary to compromise. In accordance with this, the Talmud teaches (Sanhedrin 32b): ‘Justice, justice shall you pursue’ – the first mention of ‘justice’ refers to strict law, while the second refers to compromise. How so? Where there are two boats travelling on a river….” (Meishiv Davar 3:10)

The example in the text cited by the Netziv refers to the well-known case of two boats traveling on a river that encounter each other at a narrow place. If both of them try to pass at the same time, they will both sink; if one passes after the other, they will both succeed. How does one decide which goes first? The Talmud rules that if one boat is laden and the other isn’t, the needs of the laden boat take precedence over those of the empty boat, if one boat is closer to its destination it takes precedence over the other boat, and if the boats are equidistant to their destination, a compromise is reached and the owner of the boat that goes first compensates the second boat for any losses incurred. Based on the strict law, the rabbis should have invoked the principle of “whoever is stronger prevails” (Bava Batra 34b), a principle used when both sides are right and it is impossible to determine the truth, and ruled that whichever boat is stronger should pass through, while the other boat sinks. But according to the Netziv, that would not be “peaceful justice,” and for this reason, the letter of the law is set aside and a compromise is made.

What goes around comes around. In the past, we experienced times of crisis when the leaders at the helm were from the other political camp. They behaved violently, basing their actions on what they saw as “truth” and determining the fate of the “other side” without compromise and without peace. Vindictiveness and the desire to subjugate and win, however, are acts of the devil that threaten us and our dream of a national home. One more such victory and we are lost.

In the current climate, it is imperative for both sides to set aside truth for the sake of peace. For this reason, I am ending this post not with the verse “and truth and peace loved,” but with a prayer for peace: May God’s peace bring us blessing, life, and peace. May we, both left and right, have peace. And may the Merciful One bless the people of Israel with peace.

Translated by Shira Pasternak Be’eri

About the Author
Rabbi Dr. Benjamin “Benny” Lau is the Director of the 929 Tanakh B'Yachad daily Bible study initiative.
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