In this week’s Torah portion, Bo, the pitched battle between Moses (representing God) and Pharaoh intensifies. Repeatedly, Moses demands, “Let my people go!” Repeatedly, Pharaoh refuses, his hardened heart exacting a terrible toll on his entire nation as the plagues ravage Egypt.
Then, just before the eighth plague (locusts), Pharaoh tries to strike a deal: the Israelite men can leave but the women and children must stay. Moses emphatically rejects the offer: “We will go, our young and our old, our sons and our daughters.”
Commenting in his lovely book, The Bedside Torah, Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson notes: “Pharaoh was speaking the normal language of politics, in which opposing camps compromise in order to reach agreement. The distinction between a good politician and a great one is the ability to know when a compromise is inappropriate. Moses was a great politician. He knew that the one area in which he could never compromise was his insistence on including all the people.”
This is an important lesson. Life without compromise is impossible. We rarely get everything that we want or think that we deserve. As the local church sign warned: “Husbands: If you’re always right, you’ll soon be left.” We make concessions all the time, in order to live with others: spouses, children, friends—and even enemies. Yet there are also times when we must stand on principle, when compromise would come at the cost of our integrity. Moses knows this. He musters the faith and courage to take a stand rather than striking a deal.
As Ecclesiastes teaches: to everything, there is a time.
A time to compromise and a time to stand our ground.
The challenge, of course, is to discern the proper time for each.