As the federal debt ceiling controversy raged this summer, you may have looked on with dismay, as I did. Healthy and respectful discussions to address the important issues would have been one thing. What actually occurred appeared to be something quite different.
“The manner in which [the debt deal] was produced,” wrote Fareed Zakaria (journalist, author, and editor-at-large) in the August 15 issue of Time magazine, “added poison to an already toxic atmosphere in Washington, making compromise even more difficult.” Zakaria went on to use words such as “unyielding” and “bullying” to describe the behavior of congressional members during the debt ceiling controversy, resulting in questions of U.S. trustworthiness, credibility, commitment, and how well our governmental system actually functions today.
Perhaps if members of Congress had taken a page from the Talmud, things would have fared better. The page I’m referring to is Ta’anit 20a-b, when it says, “Our Rabbis have taught: A [person] should always be gentle as the reed and never unyielding as the cedar.”
A reed is flexible, pliable, and supple. A cedar is rigid, intractable, and inflexible. There can be little doubt as to which characteristics are more valuable in human life and relationships, particularly regarding conflict, controversy, and the inevitable differences between people.
As we enter the High Holy Days next month and reflect upon our lives, our actions, and our relationships, the teaching of the Talmud can wisely guide us in our spiritual movement of teshuvah—our return to God, return to Life, return to meaningful relationships, and return to the best that is within us.
Our willingness to be flexible and pliable with others and ourselves allows for change, growth, and transformation. Adjustments and corrections to behavior and perspectives require such flexibility and suppleness. The necessary art of compromise in relationships and various situations entails the ability to adapt and stretch without breaking.
This may have been forgotten or denied during the debt ceiling controversy this summer. But Judaism calls us to remember it and affirm it throughout our lives, especially during the Days of Awe.