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Yaakov and the Curse of Indecision

In this week’s Torah portion, VaYishlach, we deal with one of the more difficult events in the Torah, the capture and rape of Yaakov’s daughter Dinah. One of the surprising aspects of the entire segment is the role of Yaakov. All eyes are upon him to see how he’s going to react. Is he going to seek revenge as his sons want, or is he going to allow Dinah to marry Shechem, her abductor, and settle among the people of the land? Yaakov responds by choosing—nothing.

I’ve come to learn that indecision can be far worse than any one of the options before you.

For an example of this principle, I need look no farther than my daily reality as a Jew living in Jerusalem. In 1967, a remarkable thing happened. A war that the entire world thought likely to result in the destruction of Israel, ended six days later with Israel suddenly holding onto territory that more than doubled its size. In the immediate aftermath, Israel expected to enter negotiations for the return of the territory to Jordan, Egypt, and Syria. However, these other nations adamantly refused to acknowledge Israel’s very existence. As negotiations, even for their benefit, would force them to acknowledge Israel’s existence, they never happened.

The problem with this territory of course is that much of it had people living in it. Many of them had close family who had been part of Israel since 1948, but hadn’t seen their siblings, cousins, etc. in 19 years. Reading the accounts of those days is fascinating. Those living in the newly captured territory looked at their family members who had been living under Israeli rule for the past 19 years and saw how much more affluent, worldly, and educated they were than themselves. At this point, there was a certain expectant curiosity. Were they also going to become citizens of Israel like their cousins and also achieve the lifestyle and education that came with it? Or were they going to be given back to the countries they lived in before? Or perhaps made their own independent nation?

Recall this was occurring in the Middle East, a part of the world where might makes right and dictatorships were the norm. Say what you will about the many horrors of dictators, failure to make clear decisions is rarely among their shortfalls. I believe those living in the newly captured territory were completely unprepared for the decision paralysis they found in Israel. Israel works on a bizarre parliamentary system that has never once in its history resulted in any political party having a majority. Governments are created by coalition, with a ton of negotiation and compromise required to amass enough votes to govern.

One of the weaknesses of this form of government is that the really difficult decisions tend to get swept under the rug. Israel is a country with no Constitution, because no one can agree what the essence of the country should be. Are we a Jewish country? Or are we a secular democracy? The way we deal with the really tough decisions is often to just avoid them.

So it was in 1967. There were those who wanted to annex the territory, and those who wanted to give it back. Those who wanted to give full citizenship to everyone living there, and those who feared that this would erode the Jewish majority of the country. So unable to decide, they simply made no decision.

The problem with making no decision, is that you pass your authority to decide to anyone willing to step forward and seize it. And those who do seize the authority for themselves are rarely the ones you want to deal with. So it was in modern day Israel. A full two decades passed between the Six Day War and the outbreak of the first Intifada. Those left in limbo decided to stop waiting for a decision on their future, and chose to force Israel’s hand in a direction that no one wanted. But failure to make a decision will never be a failure to get resolution, it just passes the power to decide to someone else.

So it was in the lifetime of Yaakov, the first one ever called Israel. All eyes turned to him to see how he would react to the devastating abduction and rape of Dinah. Yet, Yaakov did nothing, neither choosing the path or reconciliation or revenge. But decision or no, a resolution had to be reached. Seeing their father do nothing, his two sons who were most bent upon revenge took matters in their own hands. Shimon and Levy tricked the men of Shechem, killed as many of them as they could, and took Dinah back. Afterwards, Yaakov chastised them, for their actions threatened the lives of the entire family. Yet, Yaakov’s words were too late. His failure to decide left the opportunity open for whoever would seize the reigns, and all that was left to Yaakov was regret.

When two difficult paths appear before you, understand that failing to choose is also in itself a choice. Resolution will come one way or the other, but if a decision is put into your hand, it is your choice to make. If you don’t step forward to make it, you allow another to seize the decision and force your hand. I bless us all with decisiveness.

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