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DVAR TORAH

Parshat Matot

 
One of the crowning jewels of the Constitutional Convention of 1787 was known as The Connecticut Compromise, or The Great Compromise. Crafted by Connecticut delegates to the convention, Roger Sherman and Oliver Ellsworth, the agreement secured a bicameral national legislature. In the House of Representatives each state would be assigned a number of seats in proportion to its population. In the Senate, all states would have the same number of seats. This is a fact of government that is taken for granted today; but in 1787, the allocation of representation almost broke the convention. A great compromise it was, the first great compromise it wasn’t. An earlier compromise of equal greatness and national cohesion was wrought by Moshe and Bnai Yisrael in the final months of their forty year trek through the wilderness.
 
In his final recorded act as commander in chief of the Israelite military, Moshe ordered an attack on the tribe of Midyan; and this attack led to the inclusion of the Midyanite territory into the nation’s visions of its homeland. The land of the Midyanites was fertile and ideal for grazing. Among Israel’s tribes, two had a need for abundant expanses of land to graze their herds. Reuven and Gad asked for permission to take ownership of the land and to begin developing it. (Half of Menashe eventually joined this petition.) Moshe’s response to this initial request was negative, he vetoed the idea of two tribes being exempt from the battles of conquest that would be a burden carried by the balance of the tribes.
 
Reuven and Gad countered Moshe by offering to send their warriors to join the battles after building corrals for their animals and cities for their women and children. Moshe rejected this second proposal because it spoke to misplaced priorities. “Why build corrals for animals before first building shelters for your wives and children?” Moshe asked. The two tribes accepted the question of Moshe as constructive criticism. They responded that, if their request would be granted, they would first secure the safety of their families, then they would build corrals for their flocks; and then they would not just join in the battles of conquest, they offered to lead the battles of conquest. At that point of negotiation, an agreement was achieved. It was a great compromise in its own right, and at least three thousand years before the great American compromise of 1787 in Philadelphia. In neither case can we know for sure what might have happened if compromise had not been achieved, but this we do know. Both compromises saved nations and both compromises continue to teach timeless lessons.
 
For all of his virtues, compromise is not one of the attributes by which Moshe is best remembered. Yet, in one of his final decisive acts of national leadership, he established a legacy that enshrined compromise as an instrument of communal continuity. Compromise is considered a weakness by those who see it as a way of no party getting what it desires. Moshe Rabbeinu saw it as a strength for he came to appreciate it as a method of allocating to all parties something respectively desired by each.
 
German Chancellor Angela Merkel recently said that “a good compromise is one where everyone makes a contribution”. The wisdom in Merkel’s words is that she directed attention away from sacrifice and focused attention on contribution. Indeed, imagine a disagreement or a conflict where the resolution was not in what was lost or forfeited, but rather in what was given. Indeed, imagine a crossroads of tension that was relaxed because compassion prevailed over heartlessness.
 
Generally speaking, the world remembers Moshe as a teacher of law, specifically God’s law; yet, this week’s parsha highlights the Moshe of statesmanship and diplomacy. Through a negotiation with two tribes he demonstrated how to maintain a collective national spirit. Sherman and Ellsworth of colonial Connecticut basically did the same thing for a fledgling United States when the future of this country was far from certain or guaranteed. For sure, everyone would agree that a compromise is better than a loss; but what is not often as easy to see is that sometimes winning comes at a price more expensive that the victory is worth.
 

 

 

Tue, December 1 2020 15 Kislev 5781