The art of compromise

In his D’var Torah this week, the Chief Rabbi teaches us about the Art of Compromise.

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Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis,

Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis
Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis

Are compromises a good thing?

This week’s Parasha of Shoftim tells us ‘Tzedek Tzedek Tirdof’, ‘Justice, justice you shall pursue’. And throughout the ages, many people have grappled with the repetition of the term ‘Tzedek’, why is it mentioned twice?

The Gemarah in Mesechet Sanhedrin (32b) explains, ‘Echad L’din V’Echad Lifsharah’. One of the words, ‘Tzedek’, comes to tell us about a formal process of the dispensing of justice, the other comes to teach us about compromise.

And the message is that not every dispute needs to end up in court. Sometimes the people themselves can work it out or perhaps with a mediator. And we know, that in the area of conflict resolution, compromises can always be a good thing.

The Hebrew term, ‘P’shara’ is a lovely term, it comes from ‘Mayim Potrim’, ‘warm water’. You see, warm water is a compromise: The hot water can say, ‘well actually, this warm water is hot, it’s just been cooled down a bit’. And the cold water can say, ‘it’s cold, it’s just been warmed up a bit’. And that’s the essence of the compromise – both sides can emerge claiming victory.

From an Ashkenazi perspective, every time we walk through a door, we’re reminded about compromise. That’s because of the angle of the Mezuzah. You see, in our tradition, there are those who say that the Mezuzah should be upright, vertical. There’s another opinion which says that the Mezuzah should be horizontal. So we strike a compromise and that’s why in our tradition, the Mezuzah is at an angle – it’s a message about the beauty of compromise.

The Talmud gives this example: If you have very narrow straights and two ships come along and they are heading for each other, or a narrow path on the slope of a mountain and two camels are coming towards each other – either the two sides will hit and that will be a tragedy, or there will be a stand-off. Or one of the sides in these situations needs to retrace their steps – there has to be an element of compromise. This is the original Talmudic traffic jam.

In commenting on ‘Oseh Shalom Bimromav’ at the end of Kaddish, Lord Jakobovits said that we take three steps back. This is our prayer for peace and we recognise that sometimes we need to uproot ourselves from our previously held positions of conviction, in order to make some concessions, so that we can move many hundreds of steps forward.

Compromises sometimes can be a good thing and even if you are right, you can provide a way forward, through taking a few steps back.