The choices we make

The choices we make

I recently attended a terrific series of classes in my biweekly Books of the Prophets course at the Beit Midrash of Teaneck, marvelously taught by Rabbi Hayyim Angel. We’re studying the book of Judges, and spent several hours learning about and intensely discussing the difficult and tragic story of Yiftach and his daughter (Chapter 11).

First, a brief recap. Yiftach was appointed chief of the Israelites to repel an attack by Israel’s enemy, Amon. (12:5-11) After an attempted though unsuccessful negotiation (11:12-28), he leads the Israelites to victory. (11:33) Before the battle, however, Yiftach makes the following vow: “If you deliver the Ammonites into my hands, then whatever comes out of the door of my house to meet me on my safe return from the Ammonites shall be the Lord’s and shall be offered by me as a burnt offering.” (11:30-31)

Upon returning home, Yiftach is greeted by his daughter, who comes out to meet him (11:34), making her the object of his vow. Yiftach bemoans the fact that he “uttered a vow to the Lord [that he] cannot retract” (11:35), but because he believes he must fulfill his vow he eventually “did to [his daughter] as he had vowed.” (11:39) (Whether that means that he actually brought her as a sacrifice on the altar or, rather, she entered a type of nunnery is debated by Jewish biblical commentators. A fascinating debate, but not the focus of this column.)

The result of Yiftach’s careless vow was a catastrophe of immense proportions. What struck me the strongest, though, were the alternatives Yiftach confronted before he ultimately chose one. And make no mistake, choice was certainly involved, because, notwithstanding the fact that Torah law, as Yiftach understood it, forbade retracting a vow, he had the option of not obeying Torah law. Indeed, the Bible is replete with stories of people, including leaders, doing so. Yiftach therefore had a real choice: obey Torah law and harm his daughter or disobey and save her.

What I found especially noteworthy about this choice is that he wasn’t deciding between good and bad — it was a choice between bad and bad; neither sacrificing his daughter/sending her to a nunnery nor violating his vow were good choices. Both were bad, and what Yiftach had to decide was which bad was worse.

This is a common conundrum in resolving difficult problems, including ones splashed across the front page of the New York Times. For example, should the U.S. enforce a no-fly zone over, or allow the shipment of fighter jets to, Ukraine? Even though, as I discussed in my last column, this war crimes filled war has one side (Russia) that’s evil and another (Ukraine) that’s good, the decision of what to do in this good vs. evil situation is more complex. Not enforcing a no-fly zone or not sending jets makes it harder for Ukraine to defend itself — bad. And yet, taking either of those two actions can realistically lead to a nuclear WWIII and the death of tens, if not hundreds, of millions — bad. Bad vs. bad.

Luckily (for me and the country), I wasn’t elected president and therefore I don’t have to decide which is worse. It’s way above my pay grade. Unluckily, someone does have to weigh and decide between these unattractive options.

Moving off the Times’ front page and into our own personal lives, we see this same dilemma in many decisions we make concerning our jobs, our communities, our relationships, and our families. In so many of these decisions we’re not really grappling with which option is good and which is not; we’re simply — though, of course, it’s far from simple — trying to suss out which one is worse than the other, and do the less bad.

And these decision do — because they must — fall within our pay grade. Let me give one recent personal example.

Since the pandemic began, all our institutions have been wrestling with what covid-related rules should be imposed; whether, for example, to require everyone to wear masks indoors. And my shul, like many others, imposed specific rules governing this issue.

I didn’t agree with my shul’s rules; if the decision had been mine I would have set different, more stringent, requirements. And since I’m strongly opinionated (I don’t really have to tell you that, do I?), I strongly voiced my view, trying to convince the decision makers to decide otherwise. This was an area, unlike Ukraine, about which I felt competent to opine.

Unfortunately (from my perspective), I lost the argument. But while I still believe my way would have been wiser, what all should understand is that both our rules have serious drawbacks; that mandating mask-wearing or making it voluntary each have real negatives. So no matter what was decided, the situation was, conceptually, somewhat like Yiftach’s — two lousy choices exist, with the need to decide which is worse and then do the other.

Because that was the crux of this dispute, I continue to be an active member of and daven in my shul, something that might be more difficult if I thought the shul was choosing bad over good or wrong over right. When it’s bad vs. bad with the balance being which is worse, it’s important for those in the debate to be more understanding of the other side; to be more accepting that it’s okay to agree to disagree; to even contemplate the possibility that they’re right and we’re wrong. (Note: Though I may have contemplated this, I still think I’m right.)

Moshe Halbertal once delivered a breathtaking lecture at Davar about two stories from the book of Samuel. Employing a close reading of the text, he showed how that biblical book was as sophisticated as any contemporary book on political theory and the use of political power. As I listened to that brilliant class, I understood that I was studying Bible at its finest; learning how these books, written thousands of years ago, still speak to us in very real and personal ways, and help us think about serious contemporary issues.

I had a similar feeling about my classes studying Yiftach’s life. (I hasten to note, if you don’t like my conclusions the fault lies entirely on my shoulders; if you agree with some, though, I credit at least part of that to R. Angel’s teaching.)

Yiftach, a parent like many of us and a person like all, was confronted with a conundrum of immense difficulty which had no good answer; just bad and worse ones. His struggling with the challenge he faced and his response to it (whether we agree with his choice or not) should provide us with some solace and support; should teach us that some of the difficulties we face are age-old problems that are not unique to us but are part of the human condition. And our goal is for this lesson to help us deal with the trials — hopefully less tragic, though certainly no less real than Yiftach’s — that we confront in our own lives in our own time.

Joseph C. Kaplan, a regular columnist, is a long-time resident of Teaneck. His work also has appeared in various publications including Sh’ma magazine, the New York Jewish Week, the Baltimore Jewish Times, and, as letters to the editor, the New York Times.