Compromise in Texts and in Life – Pinhas 5781

D'var Torah | Numbers

Buoying the spirits of the Israelites is the knowledge that very soon they would enter into the Promised Land. When it comes to dividing up the land of Israel the Torah says the land shall be apportioned “as shares, according to the listed names: with larger groups increase the share, with smaller groups reduce the share, each to be assigned its share according to its enrollment” (Numbers 26:53-54). In other words, the land stands to be divided among those listed in the census just taken. Yet in the very next verse (v. 55) the Torah says that the land shall be divide by lot “according to the listings of their ancestral tribes.” Here, the division is made on the basis of the names of those who came out of Egypt at the time of the Exodus. The problem is obvious: not only are there two differing accounts of how the land is to be divided, the latter scheme is compromised by the fact that all those who twenty years of age or older at the time of the Exodus died in the wilderness (Numbers 14:29ff).


There are three ways to reconcile a contradiction. Whenever there are two views that oppose one another, a possible solution is to affirm the first option and reject the second, a second solution is to affirm the second view and reject the first, while the third option is to propose some compromise that combines both views. The pre-eminent medieval commentator RaShI takes the third way.


According to RaShI, the law regarding the inheritance of the Land of Israel differs from all other laws regarding inheritance in that it “makes the dead heirs to the living.” That is to say, it divides the land among the entrants into the land but by way of a system based on the property rights of their grandparents. While RaShI, based on the Midrash and Talmud (Bava Batra 117a), goes into an uncharacteristically long explanation of how the math would work, the computations are less important than the main idea: the resolution of scriptural difficulties allows for the promotion of Rabbinic values. The specific value here (and one championed by RaShi elsewhere, Deut. 6:18) is that of compromise, taking the form of accepting two apparently contradictory views and rejecting neither.


Compromise is a useful strategy for leveling textual inconsistencies. It is also a grand strategy for living with other people.






Words to Live By

What lies behind you and what lies ahead of you pales in comparison to what lies inside you.

– Ralph Waldo Emerson

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