Life consists of a constant series of hard choices that one is forced to make - and this is true of nations as well as of individuals. And, most of the problems of life are caused by the fact that these choices are almost never win – win situations but are rather choices where both are bad options. The Talmud ruefully advises us to choose the least bad alternative available when we are forced to make these choices.
This is because many of the issues upon which we are forced to decide and choose really have no permanent solution or innately correct answers. In effect we are always dealing with situations where no matter what our choice may be, there is always doubt and dissatisfaction that accompanies it.
Historians, academics, politicians and op-ed columnists, who are always blessed with perfect hindsight, are able to point out for us our past errors in judgment and mistaken policies. However, at the moment when those choices had to be made, in the absence of prophecy, no one could attest with certainty that the right choice was in fact being made. Therefore, the Talmud again gave us perspective, if not even comfort, regarding this by stating: “A judge can only decide on the basis of the facts that his eyes witness and see.”
Perfect, unerring and completely accurate decisions and choices are unfortunately not available to mortal humans. Life is very tricky for all of us. We are constantly faced with having to make hard decisions without really being able to determine what the ultimate consequences of our decision and choice will be.
The Talmud relates to us that when the great rabbi and leader of Israel, Yochanan ben Zakai, felt death approaching, he was concerned and wept. His disciples, who were gathered at his bedside, attempted to comfort him by pointing out his great merit as being the leader of Israel during the awful time of the destruction of the Second Temple. He in turn told them: “I do not know which path I will be led upon – whether to eternal life or not.” Yochanan ben Zakai made one of the most fateful decisions in Jewish history when the Roman general and future emperor Vespasian gave him a choice of wishes that the general would fulfill.
The great and holy Rabbi Yochanan chose the preservation of and protection for the Torah academy located in the town of Yavneh. This choice, as it played itself out over the millennia of Jewish life, proved to be wise and the ultimate salvation of the Jewish people. However, Rabbi Yochanan was unable to know this at the time he made the choice shortly thereafter, at the time of his passing. He was always in doubt, uncertain as to which path he would now be led upon. The problem with the hard choices that we are always forced to make in life is that we are never quite sure that the choice that was made was really the correct one in terms of our legacy and mission.
The world generally and the Jewish people particularly, are now faced with having to make a number of hard choices. The American election, the Mideast turmoil, the rise of anti-Semitism and anti-Israel sentiments and actions, the future, if any, of diplomatic efforts here regarding the Palestinians, the reaction of traditional Judaism in all of its various factions and the sea change in values and lifestyle that now engulf us – all of these and many other issues present us with very difficult choices.
Certainly we can all see that the choices are basically not win – win situations. As such, we certainly have to tread softly and carefully and attempt to choose policies and people will be the least harmful to us and to our cause. Since the nature of the Jewish people is to be messianic and utopian, we always seem to be searching for the ultimately perfect solution and choice. Therefore we are often disappointed when we are left with only pragmatic and mediocre results.
We are doomed to have to continue to live with our doubtful choices and to somehow realize that this is the best that we can do under current circumstances and with our limited knowledge. We should be wary of those that promise easy solutions and perfect policies. The future will only guarantee that there will be hard choices in our lives.