Pen Ultimate / By Default

Every family has its own collection of stories, which, when retold, acquire a near-mythic status, allowing a glimpse into familial quirks and follies, and serving at the same time as an all-encompassing metaphor for life.

With us Handelzaltses, one such story concerns my parents' vacation in Europe one winter, in the late 1970s. Keen on getting a good vantage point from which to enjoy the snowy peaks of the Alps, they booked a ride to the summit of the mountain on a chairlift.

My parents were ski-less and were enjoying the view when suddenly the lift came to an abrupt halt, probably because one of the skiers did not get off in time. So my parents were stranded in mid-air, between heaven and the deep abyss. My father, always an astute diagnostician but a man of a few words, anticipated my mother's propensity for sudden and impulsive behavior. So he filled his lungs with air and shouted to her: "Don't you do a thing!"

What is our life if not a ride in a solitary chair above a deep abyss, dependent on the mercy of powers that are infinitely stronger than we are? My father's assessment of the situation was that the default choice in the situation they were in was not doing anything at all - hence, opting for an "omission," of sorts.

The Hebrew word for default is mechdal and, back in those days in the late 1970s, the term was used mostly in reference to doing bad things - or, actually, to not doing things at all. The Agranat Commission of inquiry following the Yom Kippur War found the Israel Defense Forces chief of staff and high-ranking intelligence advisers guilty of negligence, of a mechdal, i.e., of committing a sin of omission, which allowed the army and indeed the entire country to be caught unprepared for the imminent attack by the Arab countries. The politicians of those times paid the price for their actions (actually, the lack thereof) in the next elections.

In the same vein, the Kahan Commission following the first Lebanon War also found Ariel Sharon and senior officers of the IDF guilty of negligence - of a mechdal, of "default" behavior - because they did not foresee or prevent the massacre perpetrated by the Christian militias in the Sabra and Chatila refugee camps.

Christian theology distinguishes between sins of commission and sins of omission, as explained by Ogden Nash in his "Portrait of an Artist as a Prematurely Old Man": "It is common knowledge to every schoolboy and even every Bachelor of Arts, / That all sin is divided into two parts. / One kind of sin is called a sin of commission, and that is very important, / And it is what you are doi ng when you are doing something you ortant, / And the other kind of sin is just the opposite and is called a sin of omission and is equally bad in the eyes of all right thinking people, from Billy Sunday to Buddha, / And it consist of not having done something you shuddha."

Judaism's equivalent to the omission/commission distinction are the "positive" ("thou shalt") commandments, of which there are 248, one for each organ of the human body, and "negative" ("thou shalt not") commandments, of which there are 365 - for each day of the solar year that beckons man and tempts him to sin.

When one commits a sin of commission (i.e., violates the commandments that start with "thou shalt not"), the punishment is usually stated within the commandment itself. With the sin of omission (i.e., neglecting to follow one of the "thou shalt" directives), one usually does something - or, rather, abstains from doing whatever it is - at one's own peril. Usually the reality of our life will mete out the deserved punishment.

In the digital world the "default" concept has acquired a particular meaning that is simultaneously narrower and broader: If you do not opt for one of the choices your computer offers you over and over again, it will proceed by default, as it was programmed to do. The empirical accumulated experience of life and computers points to the conclusion that usually both are programmed ultimately to gain the upper hand.

For instance, when Ariel Sharon suffered a second, severe cerebral hemorrhage in January, 2006, his deputy Ehud Olmert became acting prime minister by default, and went on to win the elections in March as the default choice for leader. We had other options, but chose not to vote for them. Thus we were dragged into a period in which the prime minister was found guilty not of neglect or omission, but on the contrary: of committing the country to a full-scale war, without considering the alternatives or the consequences, probably because war is the default choice of the IDF. A sin of commission indeed, as observed by the panel so aptly called "commission."

This raises an interesting point: If Olmert insists on staying in the PM's chair to fix the wrongs cited by the commission, the only way to check whether he has indeed mended his ways would be to embark on another war - but this time not omitting the necessary process of conducting deliberations and weighing alternatives.

Nash says: "The moral is that it is probably better not to sin at all, but if some kind of sin you must be pursuing / Well, remember to do it by doing rather than by not doing."

I'd rephrase that as follows: Assuming that all the world wants to do us in anyway (cf. my parents above the abyss), it's better not to do a thing - provided (as we learned from both Lebanon Wars) that you that you weigh the alternatives, fortify yourself and plan for a time when life decides to "commit itself" to taking action that may harm you. Which is practically always.

Should we act to force Olmert's hand and make him resign following the Winograd Commission's interim report, as he is not keen on doing this on his own? Not necessarily, as the following parable suggests:

There was a man who got a nasty blister on one of his more vital organs, but let's omit the specifics and assume it's his index finger. The blister festered and a surgeon advised an amputation. The man wanted a second opinion, and then a third; everyone advised the same. Finally, he found the top specialist for such cases.

"Well, doctor," our man asked with trepidation. "Shall I cut it off?"

"No need to," said the doctor. "It will fall off by itself."