On Root / Politically Compromising Positions

With the negotiations to form Israel’s the next government in full swing, politicians are seeing how far they can get each other to bend – politically speaking.

Politics is the art of the possible, as the saying goes, and what makes the impossible possible is the very political art of compromise.

You could even say that politicians need to be adept at changing their promises into compromises. The composition of what will become the new ruling coalition is still being decided by negotiations between many political parties – masa umatan, literally "taking-and-giving" – and the question is: who will compromise what? Which principles will hold fast, and which will be "given" or "taken," i.e. compromised, by which parties for the sake of what final agreement?

The Hebrew for "compromise" is pesharah, from the root p-sh-r, the core meanings of which include to "thaw." Lehafshir, "thaw" or "defrost," is what you do to frozen food, and lehitpasher, "compromise," is what you do to negotiations that have become stuck. While both sides may be less than fully satisfied, it's important to strike the right chord between a cold shoulder and a hot temper and to wrap things up with relations still cordial and warm, rather than poshrim, "tepid" or "lukewarm," a less affirmative sort of compromise between hot and cold.

Being demanding

We are waiting to hear what drishot, "demands," each party will make in order to join the coalition. "To demand" is lidrosh, which has an interesting history. With twin fetuses struggling in her womb, the matriarch Rebecca went to lidrosh et Hashem, "to inquire of the Lord" (Gen. 25:22). She demanded an explanation, though the text doesn't elaborate what she wanted to know. Textual exegetes, religious and otherwise, dorshim et haketuvim, "inquire" or "demand meaning" of the written word, which sometimes results in midrash, the unique, literally storied form of “Jewish exegesis and commentary on Scripture.”

Not all drishot are severely demanding. Sending regards to someone, or "asking after their welfare" is known as drishat shalom, or dash for short, "an inquiry of peace" (or "well-being"). But in the political arena, just as prospective coalition members might have drishot taktziviyot, budgetary demands, they might as well have demands for peace negotiations, which some pundit would inevitably term their drishat shalom.

While Yair Lapid and other secular Jews engage mainly in drishot, political "demands," Naftali Bennett, Aryeh Deri and other more religious types probably also present many drashot at different occasions. Small vowel change, big semantic difference: drishah is "demand," and a drashah is a "sermon" or short lesson on a traditional text or theme. There's a lovely maxim that says that a person should be naeh doresh, naeh mekayem. Literally, it means "preach well, fulfill well." That is, "walk the talk," or simply, "practice what you preach." Good advice for any teacher, preacher or political office seeker.

Equal strokes for different folks

One of Lapid's core demands, which Bennett also agrees to, but which rankles Shas, is the idea of shivyon banetel, "equality [in sharing] of the burden." This has become a sort of buzzword for getting the ultra-Orthodox (charedim) to pull their socio-economic weight in society, meaning both serve in the army and work and pay taxes, which are seen as the main civic "burdens" in Israel.

Netel is "load" or "burden," what a person notel, "takes" upon him or herself (feminine: notelet). The noun form netilah is "taking" or "taking up" and is familiar to some in the term for the ritual washing of the hands before meals, netilat yadayim, where the hands are "lifted up." There is even a special two-handled cup for this act, called a natlan.

Something can be taken from something else, as in caffeine from coffee, making the coffee natul, "devoid," that is, decaffeinated. A judge should be netul pniyot, "impartial" ("devoid of inclinations, preferences").

But you can also put something on someone else – lehatil, whether a hetel, a "tax" or "surcharge," or any sort of matalah, "task" or "assignment." It is with respect to all of these that some sort of "equality," shivyon, is sought, that society be more "egalitarian," shivyoni.

We can only know if things are equal by comparing them, by evaluating their respective worth. All these words are from the root sh-v-h. Shaveh is "equal," also in the mathematical sense, and thus a mishvaah is an "equation." In geography, there is the kav hamashveh, "the line that equates," i.e., "the equator." And in the humanities, this root crops up in sifrut hashvaatit, "comparative literature."

However, the verb lehashvot, and its related noun form,hashvaah, actually mean two things: both "compare" and "equalize," as in equalizing conditions or rights. When you 'equalize' the weight or forces on all sides, you achieve shivui mishkal, "equilibrium."

Shovi is what a thing is equal to, its "worth." It is in this sense, of "worth," that the original shaveh has entered Israeli slang. If something is shaveh!, it really rocks, it is  totally "worthwhile." Conversely, in this context, something lo shaveh is not "unequal" – but rather simply not worth it.

Mission possible

Returning to our original discussion of compromising: For a good compromise to work, opposing parties have to meet at some point that is felt by both to be a midpoint, where both the sacrifices and the achievements are seen as comparable, i.e., relatively equal. In Hebrew, we call this "coming to the'emek hashaveh," "the valley of equality." If that sounds like a place – it actually is, mentioned in Genesis 14:17, but it has come to mean "meeting halfway."

Hebrew also hints that to compromise is to make things possible, to enable. From the same root p-sh-r, we get the very common efshar (initial "p" and medial "f" alternating), "possible." Efshar doesa lot of heavy lifting in common parlance: In a question, it can mean "May I?" And in a single word observation, it means "you could do it that way" We can make a verb out of it,leafsher, "to make possible," or "to enable." And negate it: ee-efshar, or bilti-efshari – "impossible!" "you can't do it that way." These are all efsharuyot, "possibilities."

And indeed, at this writing, there are many possibilities of how the coalition cards will fall. We know what they've promised, but until we know what they will compromise, we won't know who will comprise the coalition. Not everyone can or will sit with everyone else in the government, but still with the appropriate pesharot, it can be claimed kim'at hakol efshari – "almost anything is possible."

Comments? Queries? Quibbles? Write: jeremybenstein@gmail.com. Particularly promising or piquant posts will be addressed in this space.

Tomer Appelbaum