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The Torah Learning Library of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah

Should We Regret Making the Right Decision?

by Rabbi Haggai Resnikoff (Posted on July 31, 2017)
Topics: 3 Week/9 Days/Tisha B'Av, Moadim/Holidays

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This article is part of Torat Chovevei, a Community Learning Program led by Yeshivat Chovevei Torah with the support of the Covenant Foundation. The goal of the program is to connect communities to YCT through the medium of Torah learning. All topics discussed weave relevant contemporary issues together with Torah and non-Torah sources in monthly home-based learning groups (chaburot). These groups are guided by Rabbi Haggai Resnikoff, Rebbe and Director of Community Learning at YCT. For further information about Torat Chovevei, and how your community can get involved, please contact Rabbi Resnikoff at


Much of the regret that we express on Tisha B’Av and the teshuva that we do is for sins of the past or for שנאת חנם which, though it still continues doesn’t indicate any specific moment or act. I have identified another theme in the Tisha B’Av story, which I feel may give us one more opportunity to do real teshuva on that day and in our lives. The theme is the decisions we’ve made which were right at the time, and yet had negative consequences. It is not so clear that we should necessarily regret those decisions, but I think that many of us do, and if we could do some kind of concrete teshuva, it would reduce our regrets in general.


Berakhot 3a:11-14

אמר רב יצחק בר שמואל משמיה דרב ג’ משמרות הוי הלילה ועל כל משמר ומשמר יושב הקדוש ברוך הוא ושואג כארי ואומר אוי לבנים שבעונותיהם החרבתי את ביתי ושרפתי את היכלי והגליתים לבין אומות העולם: תניא אמר רבי יוסי פעם אחת הייתי מהלך בדרך ונכנסתי לחורבה אחת מחורבות ירושלים להתפלל בא אליהו זכור לטוב ושמר לי על הפתח (והמתין לי) עד שסיימתי תפלתי לאחר שסיימתי תפלתי אמר לי שלום עליך רבי ואמרתי לו שלום עליך רבי ומורי…ואמר לי בני מה קול שמעת בחורבה זו ואמרתי לו שמעתי בת קול שמנהמת כיונה ואומרת אוי לבנים שבעונותיהם החרבתי את ביתי ושרפתי את היכלי והגליתים לבין האומות ואמר לי חייך וחיי ראשך לא שעה זו בלבד אומרת כך אלא בכל יום ויום שלש פעמים אומרת כךR. Isaac b. Samuel said in the name of Rab: The night is divided into three watches, and at each watch the Holy One, blessed be He, sits enthroned, roars like a lion and exclaims, “Alas for My children, for whose iniquities I destroyed My house, burnt My Temple, and exiled them among the nations of the world ! ” There is a teaching : R. Jose said : Once I was journeying by the way, and I entered one of the ruins of Jerusalem to pray. Elijah — may he be remembered for good ! — came, waited at the entrance for me, and stayed until I had concluded my prayer. After I had finished my prayer he said to me, ” Peace be to thee, my master.” I responded, “Peace be to thee, my master and teacher.”…Then he said to me, “My son, what sound didst thou hear in that ruin?” I answered, “I heard a Bat Kol moaning like a dove, crying, ‘Alas for My children for whose iniquities I destroyed My house, burnt My Temple, and exiled them among the nations ! ‘” He said to me, “By thy life and the life of thy head, not only at this hour does it so cry, but thrice daily it exclaims thus.
  1. What is God feeling at the moment that he says these words? Does God feel any guilt for what he has done? Should God feel guilt? Why or why not? 

Gittin 55b

…אקמצא ובר קמצא חרוב ירושלים דההוא גברא דרחמיה קמצא ובעל דבביה בר קמצא עבד סעודתא אמר ליה לשמעיה זיל אייתי לי קמצא אזל אייתי ליה בר קמצא אתא אשכחיה דהוה יתיב אמר ליה מכדי ההוא גברא בעל דבבא דההוא גברא הוא מאי בעית הכא קום פוק אמר ליה הואיל ואתאי שבקן ויהיבנא לך דמי מה דאכילנא ושתינא אמר ליה לא אמר ליה יהיבנא לך דמי פלגא דסעודתיך אמר ליה לא אמר ליה יהיבנא לך דמי כולה סעודתיך א”ל לא נקטיה בידיה ואוקמיה ואפקיה אמר הואיל והוו יתבי רבנן ולא מחו ביה ש”מ קא ניחא להו איזיל איכול בהו קורצא בי מלכא אזל אמר ליה לקיסר מרדו בך יהודאי א”ל מי יימר א”ל שדר להו קורבנא חזית אי מקרבין ליה אזל שדר בידיה עגלא תלתא בהדי דקאתי שדא ביה מומא בניב שפתים ואמרי לה בדוקין שבעין דוכתא דלדידן הוה מומא ולדידהו לאו מומא הוא סבור רבנן לקרוביה משום שלום מלכות אמר להו רבי זכריה בן אבקולס יאמרו בעלי מומין קריבין לגבי מזבח סבור למיקטליה דלא ליזיל ולימא אמר להו רבי זכריה יאמרו מטיל מום בקדשים יהרג אמר רבי יוחנן ענוותנותו של רבי זכריה בן אבקולס החריבה את ביתנו ושרפה את היכלנו והגליתנו מארצנו…Because of Kamtsa and Bar Kamtsa, Jerusalem was destroyed: As a certain man whose friend was Kamtsa and whose enemy was Bar Kamtsa arranged a banquet. He said to his servant, “Bring me Kamtsa.” He went [and, instead,] he brought him Bar Kamtsa. He came [and] found that he was sitting. He said to him, “How is this? That man is an enemy of this man. What do you want here? Get up and go away!” He said to him, “Since I have [already] come, leave us and I will give you money for that that which I eat and drink.” He said to him, “No.” He said to him, ” I will give you money for half of your banquet.” He said to him, “No.” He said to him, “I will give you money for all of your banquet.” He said to him, “No.” He took him by the hand and picked him up and removed him. He said [to himself], Since there were rabbis sitting there and they did not protest, it is implied that it was acceptable to them. I will go and tale-bear against them at the king’s court. He went and he told the Caesar, “The Jews are rebelling against you.” He said to him, “How can one tell?” He said to him, “Send them a sacrifice – see if they will sacrifice it.” He proceeded to send with him a fattened calf. While he was coming, he placed a blemish in its upper lip, and some say in the white of its eye – a place that for us is [considered] a blemish and for them is not [considered] a blemish. The Rabbis thought to sacrifice it for the sake of peaceful relations with the government. Rabbi Zecharia ben Avkulos said to them, “They will say ‘Blemished animals can be sacrificed on the altar.'” They thought to kill him, [so] that he not go and say [what happened]. Rabbi Zecharia ben Avkulos said to them, “They will say ‘One that places a blemish on consecrated animals is [to be] killed.'” Rabbi Yochanan said, “The humility of Rabbi Zecharia ben Avkulos destroyed our Temple and burned our Sanctuary and exiled us from our land.”
  1. How many times in this story could the disaster have been averted? How many people are at fault? 
  2. How does Rabbi Yochanan’s statement jive with the previous text that says that God did this to the Jews because of their sins and not because of any one decision by any one person? What good would have been served if Rabbi Zacharya ben Avkulos had made a different choice? How should he feel about his decision? Does he deserve punishment?
  3. Do we face similar situations in our religious lives where halakha or ethics come into conflict with a larger policy decision? How do we address those situations?

Rabban Yochanan Ben Zakai

Gittin 56a:15-18

…פתחו ליה בבא נפק כי מטא להתם אמר שלמא עלך מלכא שלמא עלך מלכא א”ל מיחייבת תרי קטלא חדא דלאו מלכא אנא וקא קרית לי מלכא ותו אי מלכא אנא עד האידנא אמאי לא אתית לגבאי א”ל דקאמרת לאו מלכא אנא איברא מלכא את…ודקאמרת אי מלכא אנא אמאי לא קאתית לגבאי עד האידנא בריוני דאית בן לא שבקינן אמר ליה אילו חבית של דבש ודרקון כרוך עליה לא היו שוברין את החבית בשביל דרקון אישתיק קרי עליה רב יוסף ואיתימא רבי עקיבא (ישעיהו מד, כה) משיב חכמים אחור ודעתם יסכל איבעי ליה למימר ליה שקלינן צבתא ושקלינן ליה לדרקון וקטלינן ליה וחביתא שבקינן לה אדהכי אתי פריסתקא עליה מרומי אמר ליה קום דמית ליה קיסר ואמרי הנהו חשיבי דרומי לאותיבך ברישא…אמר ליה ומאחר דחכמיתו כולי האי עד האידנא אמאי לא אתיתו לגבאי אמר ליה ולא אמרי לך אמר ליה אנא נמי אמרי לך אמר ליה מיזל אזילנא ואינש אחרינא משדרנא אלא בעי מינאי מידי דאתן לך אמר ליה תן לי יבנה וחכמיה ושושילתא דרבן גמליאל ואסוותא דמסיין ליה לרבי צדוק קרי עליה רב יוסף ואיתימא רבי עקיבא (ישעיהו מד, כה) משיב חכמים אחור ודעתם יסכל איבעי למימר ליה לשבקינהו הדא זימנא והוא סבר דלמא כולי האי לא עביד והצלה פורתא נמי לא הוי…They opened the gate. He went out. He got there [and] said, “Peace to you, O king, peace to you, O king.” [Vespasian] said to him, “You have made yourself guilty of two death penalties: first, since I am not a king and you have called me, ‘king;’ and also, if I am a king, why did you not come to me until now?” He said to him, “That which you said, ‘I am not a king,’ you will be a king…And that which you said, ‘If I am a king, why did you not come to me until now;’ the thugs that we have with us did not allow us.” He said to him, “If there was a barrel of honey with a serpent wrapped over it, would one not break the barrel for the sake of [getting rid] of the serpent?” He was silent. Rav Yosef – and some say, Rabbi Akiva – would read [this verse to be] about this (Isaiah 44:25), “He turns back the wise and renders their knowledge foolish.” He should have said to him, “We take tongs and we take the serpent and kill him and leave the barrel.” Bye and bye, a messenger came to him from Rome. He said to him, “Get up, the [reigning] Caesar has died, and those dignitaries of Rome have placed you at the helm.”…He said to him, “And since you are so wise, until now why did you not come to me? He said to him, “Didn’t I [already] tell you?” He said to him, “I also [already] told you.” He said to him, “I am leaving and I will send someone else, but ask something that I can give you.” He said to him, “Give me Yavneh and her Sages and the line of Rabban Gamliel and a cure to heal Rabbi Tsadok” Rav Yosef – and some say, Rabbi Akiva – would read [this verse to be] about this (Isaiah 44:25), “He turns back the wise and renders their knowledge foolish.” He should have said to him, “Leave us this time.” And he thought that perhaps that much he would not do, and there would [then] not even be a small salvation.
  1. Who is right? Rabban Yochanan ben Zakai or Rabbi Akiva? Is this story about a missed opportunity or about seizing the opportunity to save something?
  2. What is Rabban Yachanan Ben Zakai’s original plan? Did he ever think he could save Jerusalem? Did he ultimately get what he wanted? With how much moral certainty did he approach negotiations?  

Berakhot 28b:8-11

וכשחלה רבי יוחנן בן זכאי נכנסו תלמידיו לבקרו כיון שראה אותם התחיל לבכות אמרו לו תלמידיו נר ישראל עמוד הימיני פטיש החזק מפני מה אתה בוכה אמר להם …שיש לפני שני דרכים אחת של גן עדן ואחת של גיהנם ואיני יודע באיזו מוליכים אותי ולא אבכה אמרו לו רבינו ברכנו אמר להם יהי רצון שתהא מורא שמים עליכם כמורא בשר ודם אמרו לו תלמידיו עד כאן אמר להם ולואי תדעו כשאדם עובר עבירה אומר שלא יראני אדם. בשעת פטירתו אמר להם פנו כלים מפני הטומאה והכינו כסא לחזקיהו מלך יהודה שבא:When Rabban Johanan b. Zakkai was ill, his disciples went in to visit him. On beholding them, he began to weep. His disciples said to him, “O lamp of Israel, right-hand pillar, mighty hammer! Wherefore dost thou weep ?” He replied to them, “…when before me lie two ways, one of the Garden of Eden and the other of Gehinnom, and I know not in which I am to be led — shall I not weep ?” They said to him, “Our master, bless us !” He said to them, “May it be His will that the fear of Heaven be upon you [as great] as the fear of flesh and blood,” His disciples exclaimed, “Only as great !” He replied, “Would that it be [as great] ; for know ye, when a man intends to commit a transgression, he says, ‘I hope nobody will see me’.” At the time of his departure [from the world] he said to them, “Remove all the utensils because of the defilement and prepare a seat for Hezekiah, king of Judah, who is coming.” 
  1. Why does Rabban Yochanan ben Zakai feel such intense anguish at the hour of his death? What are his regrets?
  2. Is this hindsight, or did RYb”Z enter into this theologically uncertain situation with his eyes open?
  3. What is the meaning of RYb”Z’s reference to King Hezekiah?

Rashi on Berakhot 28b:11:2

וכבר לחזקיהו שבא – אלי ללוותי:

II Kings 18:12-37

(יג) וּבְאַרְבַּע֩ עֶשְׂרֵ֨ה שָׁנָ֜ה לַמֶּ֣לֶךְ חִזְקִיָּ֗ה עָלָ֞ה סַנְחֵרִ֤יב מֶֽלֶךְ־אַשּׁוּר֙ עַ֣ל כָּל־עָרֵ֧י יְהוּדָ֛ה הַבְּצֻר֖וֹת וַֽיִּתְפְּשֵֽׂם׃ (יד) וַיִּשְׁלַ֣ח חִזְקִיָּ֣ה מֶֽלֶךְ־יְהוּדָ֣ה אֶל־מֶֽלֶךְ־אַשּׁוּר֩ ׀ לָכִ֨ישָׁה ׀ לֵאמֹ֤ר ׀ חָטָ֙אתִי֙ שׁ֣וּב מֵֽעָלַ֔י אֵ֛ת אֲשֶׁר־תִּתֵּ֥ן עָלַ֖י אֶשָּׂ֑א וַיָּ֨שֶׂם מֶֽלֶךְ־אַשּׁ֜וּר עַל־חִזְקִיָּ֣ה מֶֽלֶךְ־יְהוּדָ֗ה שְׁלֹ֤שׁ מֵאוֹת֙ כִּכַּר־כֶּ֔סֶף וּשְׁלֹשִׁ֖ים כִּכַּ֥ר זָהָֽב׃ (טו) וַיִּתֵּן֙ חִזְקִיָּ֔ה אֶת־כָּל־הַכֶּ֖סֶף הַנִּמְצָ֣א בֵית־יקוק וּבְאֹצְר֖וֹת בֵּ֥ית הַמֶּֽלֶךְ׃ (טז) בָּעֵ֣ת הַהִ֗יא קִצַּ֨ץ חִזְקִיָּ֜ה אֶת־דַּלְת֨וֹת הֵיכַ֤ל יקוק וְאֶת־הָאֹ֣מְנ֔וֹת אֲשֶׁ֣ר צִפָּ֔ה חִזְקִיָּ֖ה מֶ֣לֶךְ יְהוּדָ֑ה וַֽיִּתְּנֵ֖ם לְמֶ֥לֶךְ אַשּֽׁוּר׃ (פ) (יז) וַיִּשְׁלַ֣ח מֶֽלֶךְ־אַשּׁ֡וּר אֶת־תַּרְתָּ֥ן וְאֶת־רַב־סָרִ֣יס ׀ וְאֶת־רַב־שָׁקֵ֨ה מִן־לָכִ֜ישׁ אֶל־הַמֶּ֧לֶךְ חִזְקִיָּ֛הוּ בְּחֵ֥יל כָּבֵ֖ד יְרוּשָׁלִָ֑ם וַֽיַּעֲלוּ֙ וַיָּבֹ֣אוּ יְרוּשָׁלִַ֔ם וַיַּעֲל֣וּ וַיָּבֹ֗אוּ וַיַּֽעַמְדוּ֙ בִּתְעָלַת֙ הַבְּרֵכָ֣ה הָֽעֶלְיוֹנָ֔ה אֲשֶׁ֕ר בִּמְסִלַּ֖ת שְׂדֵ֥ה כוֹבֵֽס׃ (יח) וַֽיִּקְרְאוּ֙ אֶל־הַמֶּ֔לֶךְ וַיֵּצֵ֧א אֲלֵקֶ֛ם אֶלְיָקִ֥ים בֶּן־חִלְקִיָּ֖הוּ אֲשֶׁ֣ר עַל־הַבָּ֑יִת וְשֶׁבְנָה֙ הַסֹּפֵ֔ר וְיוֹאָ֥ח בֶּן־אָסָ֖ף הַמַּזְכִּֽיר׃…(כח) וַֽיַּעֲמֹד֙ רַב־שָׁקֵ֔ה וַיִּקְרָ֥א בְקוֹל־גָּד֖וֹל יְהוּדִ֑ית וַיְדַבֵּ֣ר וַיֹּ֔אמֶר שִׁמְע֛וּ דְּבַר־הַמֶּ֥לֶךְ הַגָּד֖וֹל מֶ֥לֶךְ אַשּֽׁוּר׃ (כט) כֹּ֚ה אָמַ֣ר הַמֶּ֔לֶךְ אַל־יַשִּׁ֥יא לָכֶ֖ם חִזְקִיָּ֑הוּ כִּי־לֹ֣א יוּכַ֔ל לְהַצִּ֥יל אֶתְכֶ֖ם מִיָּדֽוֹ׃ (ל) וְאַל־יַבְטַ֨ח אֶתְכֶ֤ם חִזְקִיָּ֙הוּ֙ אֶל־יקוק לֵאמֹ֔ר הַצֵּ֥ל יַצִּילֵ֖נוּ יקוק וְלֹ֤א תִנָּתֵן֙ אֶת־הָעִ֣יר הַזֹּ֔את בְּיַ֖ד מֶ֥לֶךְ אַשּֽׁוּר׃ (לא) אַֽל־תִּשְׁמְע֖וּ אֶל־חִזְקִיָּ֑הוּ כִּי֩ כֹ֨ה אָמַ֜ר מֶ֣לֶךְ אַשּׁ֗וּר עֲשֽׂוּ־אִתִּ֤י בְרָכָה֙ וּצְא֣וּ אֵלַ֔י וְאִכְל֤וּ אִישׁ־גַּפְנוֹ֙ וְאִ֣ישׁ תְּאֵֽנָת֔וֹ וּשְׁת֖וּ אִ֥ישׁ מֵֽי־בוֹרֽוֹ׃ (לב) עַד־בֹּאִי֩ וְלָקַחְתִּ֨י אֶתְכֶ֜ם אֶל־אֶ֣רֶץ כְּאַרְצְכֶ֗ם אֶרֶץ֩ דָּגָ֨ן וְתִיר֜וֹשׁ אֶ֧רֶץ לֶ֣חֶם וּכְרָמִ֗ים אֶ֣רֶץ זֵ֤ית יִצְהָר֙ וּדְבַ֔שׁ וִֽחְי֖וּ וְלֹ֣א תָמֻ֑תוּ וְאַֽל־תִּשְׁמְעוּ֙ אֶל־חִזְקִיָּ֔הוּ כִּֽי־יַסִּ֤ית אֶתְכֶם֙ לֵאמֹ֔ר יקוק יַצִּילֵֽנוּ׃… (13) In the fourteenth year of King Hezekiah, King Sennacherib of Assyria marched against all the fortified towns of Judah and seized them. (14) King Hezekiah sent this message to the king of Assyria at Lachish: “I have done wrong; withdraw from me; and I shall bear whatever you impose on me.” So the king of Assyria imposed upon King Hezekiah of Judah a payment of three hundred talents of silver and thirty talents of gold. (15) Hezekiah gave him all the silver that was on hand in the House of the LORD and in the treasuries of the palace. (16) At that time Hezekiah cut down the doors and the doorposts of the Temple of the LORD, which King Hezekiah had overlaid [with gold], and gave them to the king of Assyria. (17) But the king of Assyria sent the Tartan, the Rabsaris, and the Rabshakeh from Lachish with a large force to King Hezekiah in Jerusalem. They marched up to Jerusalem; and when they arrived, they took up a position near the conduit of the Upper Pool, by the road of the Fuller’s Field. (18) They summoned the king; and Eliakim son of Hilkiah, who was in charge of the palace, Shebna the scribe, and Joah son of Asaph the recorder went out to them…(28) And the Rabshakeh stood and called out in a loud voice in Judean: “Hear the words of the Great King, the King of Assyria. (29) Thus said the king: Don’t let Hezekiah deceive you, for he will not be able to deliver you from my hands. (30) Don’t let Hezekiah make you rely on the LORD, saying: The LORD will surely save us: this city will not fall into the hands of the king of Assyria. (31) Don’t listen to Hezekiah. For thus said the king of Assyria: Make your peace with me and come out to me, so that you may all eat from your vines and your fig trees and drink water from your cisterns, (32) until I come and take you away to a land like your own, a land of grain [fields] and vineyards, of bread and wine, of olive oil and honey, so that you may live and not die. Don’t listen to Hezekiah, who misleads you by saying, ‘The LORD will save us.’ 

II Kings 19:14-20

(יד) וַיִּקַּ֨ח חִזְקִיָּ֧הוּ אֶת־הַסְּפָרִ֛ים מִיַּ֥ד הַמַּלְאָכִ֖ים וַיִּקְרָאֵ֑ם וַיַּ֙עַל֙ בֵּ֣ית יקוק וַיִּפְרְשֵׂ֥הוּ חִזְקִיָּ֖הוּ לִפְנֵ֥י יקוק (פ) (טו) וַיִּתְפַּלֵּ֨ל חִזְקִיָּ֜הוּ לִפְנֵ֣י יקוק וַיֹּאמַר֒ יקוק אֱ-לֹקֵ֤י יִשְׂרָאֵל֙ יֹשֵׁ֣ב הַכְּרֻבִ֔ים אַתָּה־ה֤וּא הָֽאֱ-לֹקִים֙ לְבַדְּךָ֔ לְכֹ֖ל מַמְלְכ֣וֹת הָאָ֑רֶץ אַתָּ֣ה עָשִׂ֔יתָ אֶת־הַשָּׁמַ֖יִם וְאֶת־הָאָֽרֶץ׃ (טז) הַטֵּ֨ה יקוק ׀ אָזְנְךָ֙ וּֽשֲׁמָ֔ע פְּקַ֧ח יקוק עֵינֶ֖יךָ וּרְאֵ֑ה וּשְׁמַ֗ע אֵ֚ת דִּבְרֵ֣י סַנְחֵרִ֔יב אֲשֶׁ֣ר שְׁלָח֔וֹ לְחָרֵ֖ף אֱ-לֹקִ֥ים חָֽי׃ (יז) אָמְנָ֖ם יקוק הֶחֱרִ֜יבוּ מַלְכֵ֥י אַשּׁ֛וּר אֶת־הַגּוֹיִ֖ם וְאֶת־אַרְצָֽם׃ (יח) וְנָתְנ֥וּ אֶת־אֱלֹהֵיהֶ֖ם בָּאֵ֑שׁ כִּי֩ לֹ֨א אֱ-לֹקִ֜ים הֵ֗מָּה כִּ֣י אִם־מַעֲשֵׂ֧ה יְדֵֽי־אָדָ֛ם עֵ֥ץ וָאֶ֖בֶן וַֽיְאַבְּדֽוּם׃ (יט) וְעַתָּה֙ יקוק אֱ-לֹקֵ֔ינוּ הוֹשִׁיעֵ֥נוּ נָ֖א מִיָּד֑וֹ וְיֵֽדְעוּ֙ כָּל־מַמְלְכ֣וֹת הָאָ֔רֶץ כִּ֥י אַתָּ֛ה יקוק אֱ-לֹקִ֖ים לְבַדֶּֽךָ׃…(14) Hezekiah took the letter from the messengers and read it. Hezekiah then went up to the House of the LORD and spread it out before the LORD. (15) And Hezekiah prayed to the LORD and said, “O LORD of Hosts, Enthroned on the Cherubim! You alone are God of all the kingdoms of the earth. You made the heavens and the earth. (16) O LORD, incline Your ear and hear; open Your eyes and see. Hear the words that Sennacherib has sent to blaspheme the living God! (17) True, O LORD, the kings of Assyria have annihilated the nations and their lands, (18) and have committed their gods to the flames and have destroyed them; for they are not gods, but man’s handiwork of wood and stone. (19) But now, O LORD our God, deliver us from his hands, and let all the kingdoms of the earth know that You alone, O LORD, are God.”…
  1. How is Hezekiah’s situation similar to RYb”Z’s? How is it different? How is his choice similar or different?
  2.  At the end of the story, God saves Jerusalem, does that mean that Hezekiah make the right choice?
  3. What does Rabban Yochanan ben Zakai expect when Hezekiah comes to accompany him to his next life? Praise? Reproach? Understanding? 

Dirty Hands

Michael Waltzer, The Problem of Dirty Hands, Philosophy and Public Affairs, vol. 2, no. 2, (Winter 1973), pp. 160-180 

In an earlier issue of Philosophy & Public Affairs there appeared a symposium on the rules of war which was actually (or at least more importantly) a symposium on another topic. The actual topic was whether or not a man can ever face, or ever has to face, a moral dilemma, a situation where he must choose between two courses of action both of which it would be wrong for him to undertake. Thomas Nagel worriedly suggested that this could happen and that it did happen whenever someone was forced to choose between upholding an important moral principle and avoiding some looming disaster… 

That is the dilemma of dirty hands as it has been experienced by the political actors and written about in the literature of political action. I don’t want to argue that it is only a political dilemma. No doubt we can get our hands dirty in private life also, and sometimes, no doubt, we should. But the issue is posed most dramatically in politics for the three reasons that make political life the kind of life it is, because we claim to act for others but also serve ourselves, rule over others, and use violence against them. It is easy to get one’s hands dirty in politics and it is often right to do so. But it is not easy to teach a good man how not to be good, nor is it easy to explain such a man to himself once he has committed whatever crimes are required of him. At least, it is not easy once we have agreed to use the word “crimes” and to live with (because we have no choice) the dilemma of dirty hands. Still, the agreement is common enough, and on its basis there have developed three broad traditions of explanation, three ways of thinking about dirty hands, which derive in some very general fashion from neoclassical, Protestant, and Catholic perspectives on politics and morality. I want to try to say something very briefly about each of them, or rather about a representative example of each of them, for each seems to me partly right. But I don’t think I can put together the compound view that might be wholly right.

The first tradition is best represented by Machiavelli, the first man, so far as I know, to state the paradox that I am examining. The good man who aims to found or reform a republic must, Machiavelli tells us, do terrible things to reach his goal… Sometimes, however, “when the act accuses, the result excuses.” This sentence from The Discourses is often taken to mean that the politician’s deceit and cruelty are justified by the good results he brings about. But if they were justified, it wouldn’t be necessary to learn what Machiavelli claims to teach: how not to be good. It would only be necessary to learn how to be good in a new more difficult, perhaps roundabout way. That is not Machiavelli’s argument. His political judgments are indeed consequentialist in character, but not his moral judgments. We know whether cruelty is used well or badly by its effects over time. But that it is bad to use cruelty we know in some other way. The deceitful and cruel politician is excused (if he succeeds) only in the sense that the rest of us come to agree that the results were “worth it” or, more likely, that we simply forget his crimes when we praise his success…

What the penalties are for not being good, Machiavelli doesn’t say, and it is probably for this reason above all that his moral sensitivity has so often been questioned. He is suspect not because he tells political actors they must get their hands dirty, but because he does not specify the state of mind appropriate to a man with dirty hands. A Machiavellian hero has no inwardness. What he thinks of himself we don’t know. I would guess, along with most other readers of Machiavelli, that he basks in his glory. But then it is difficult to account for the strength of his original reluctance to learn how not to be good. In any case, he is the sort of man who is unlikely to keep a diary and so we cannot find out what he thinks. Yet we do want to know; above all, we want a record of his anguish. That is a sign of our own conscientiousness and of the impact on us of the second tradition of thought that I want to examine, in which personal anguish sometimes seems the only acceptable excuse for political crimes.

The second tradition is best represented, I think, by Max Weber who outlines its essential features with great power at the very end of his essay “Politics as a Vocation.” For Weber, the good man with dirty hands is a hero still, but he is a tragic hero… He still wants what Christian magistrates have always wanted, both to do good in the world and to save his soul, but now these two ends have come into sharp contradiction. They are contradictory because of the necessity for violence in a world where God has not instituted the sword. The politician takes the sword himself, and only by doing so does he measure up to his vocation. With full consciousness of what he is doing, he does bad in order to do good, and surrenders his soul… Yet the reader never doubts that his mature, superbly trained, relentless, objective, responsible, and disciplined political leader is also a suffering servant. His choices are hard and painful, and he pays the price not only while making them but forever after. A man doesn’t lose his soul one day and find it the next.

The difficulties with this view will be clear to anyone who has ever met a suffering servant. Here is a man who lies, intrigues, sends other men to their death – and suffers. He does what he must do with a heavy heart. None of us can know, he tells us, how much it costs him to do his duty. Indeed, we cannot, for he himself fixes the price he pays. And that is the trouble with this view of political crime. We suspect the suffering servant of either masochism or hypocrisy or both, and while we are often wrong, we are not always wrong. Weber attempts to resolve the problem of dirty hands entirely within the confines of the individual conscience but I am inclined to think that this is neither possible nor desirable. The self-awareness of the tragic hero is obviously of great value. We want the politician to have an inner life that least something like that which Weber describes. But sometimes the hero’s suffering needs to be socially expressed (for like punishment, it confirms and reinforces our sense that certain acts are wrong). And equally important, it sometimes needs to be socially limited… It is not the case that when he does bad in order to do good he surrenders himself forever to the demon of politics. He commits a determinate crime, and he must pay a determinate penalty. When he has done so, his hands will be clean again, or as clean as human hands can ever be… this teaching is central to the third tradition I want to examine.

Once again I will take a latter-day and a lapsed representative of the tradition and consider Albert Camus’ The Just Assassins. The heroes of this play are terrorists at work in nineteenth-century Russia. The dirt on their hands is human blood… The heroes are innocent criminals, just assassins, because, having killed, they are prepared to die – and will die. Only their execution, by the same despotic authorities they are attacking, will complete the action in which they are engaged: dying, they need make no excuses. That is the end of their guilt and pain. The execution is not so much punishment as self-punishment and expiation. On the scaffold they wash their hands clean and, unlike the suffering servant, they die happy…

…I am less interested here in the violence…than in the sensible doctrine that it exaggerates. That doctrine might best be described by an analogy: just assassination, I want to suggest is like civil disobedience. In both men violate a set of rules, go beyond a moral or legal limit, in order to do what they believe they should do. At the same time, they acknowledge their responsibility for the violation by accepting punishment or doing penance. But there is also a difference between the two which has to do with the difference between law and morality. In most cases of civil disobedience the laws of the state are broken for moral reasons, and the state provides the punishment. In most cases of dirty hands moral rules are broken for reasons of state, and no one provides the punishment… Moral rules are not usually enforced against the sort of actor I am considering largely because he acts in an official capacity. If they were enforced, dirty hands would be no problem. We would simply honor the man who did bad in order to do good, and at the same time we would punish him…

I am nevertheless inclined to think Camus’ view the most attractive of the three, if only because it requires us at least to imagine a punishment or a penance that fits the crime and so to examine closely the nature of the crime. The others do not require that… Since it is concerned only with those crimes that ought to be committed, the dilemma of dirty hands seems to exclude questions of degree. Wanton or excessive cruelty is not at issue, any more than is cruelty directed at bad ends. But political action is so uncertain that politicians necessarily take moral as well as political risks, committing crimes that they only think ought to be committed. They override the rules without ever being certain that they have found the best way to the results they hope to achieve, and we don’t want them to do that too quickly or too often. So it is important that the moral stakes be very high – which is to say, that the rules be rightly valued…

“We shall not abolish lying by refusing to tell lies,” says [Sartré’s Communist leader] Hoerderer, “but by using every means at hand to abolish social classes.” I suspect we shall not abolish lying at all, but we might see to it that fewer lies were told if we contrived to deny power and glory to the greatest liars – except, of course, in the case of those lucky few whose extraordinary achievements make us forget the lies they told. If Hoerderer succeeds in abolishing social classes, perhaps he will join the lucky few. Meanwhile, he lies, manipulates, and kills, and we must make sure he pays the price. We won’t be able to do that, however, without getting our own hands dirty, and then we must find some way of paying the price ourselves.

  1. Which of Waltzer’s models does Rabban Yochanan ben Zakai fit? Is the the suffering servant? Or the just assasin? Does he know? How might this essay shed new light on why RYb”Z is crying at the end of his life?
  2. What model does God in the first text fit into? Are there any other possibilities? What does casting God in this role enrich do to our relationship with God?
  3. Do you agree with Waltzer’s contention that ethical people should attempt to avoid “dirty hands” situations? Can you give examples in the course of everyday life where that might have negative consequences?

Mishneh Torah, Repentance 1:4

(ד) אַף עַל פִּי שֶׁהַתְּשׁוּבָה מְכַפֶּרֶת עַל הַכּל וְעַצְמוֹ שֶׁל יוֹם הַכִּפּוּרִים מְכַפֵּר. יֵשׁ עֲבֵרוֹת שֶׁהֵן מִתְכַּפְּרִים לִשְׁעָתָן וְיֵשׁ עֲבֵרוֹת שֶׁאֵין מִתְכַּפְּרִים אֶלָּא לְאַחַר זְמַן. כֵּיצַד. עָבַר אָדָם עַל מִצְוַת עֲשֵׂה שֶׁאֵין בָּהּ כָּרֵת וְעָשָׂה תְּשׁוּבָה אֵינוֹ זָז מִשָּׁם עַד שֶׁמּוֹחֲלִין לוֹ, וּבְאֵלּוּ נֶאֱמַר (ירמיה ג-כב) “שׁוּבוּ בָּנִים שׁוֹבָבִים אֶרְפָּה מְשׁוּבֹתֵיכֶם” וְגוֹ’. עָבַר עַל מִצְוַת לֹא תַּעֲשֶׂה שֶׁאֵין בָּהּ כָּרֵת וְלֹא מִיתַת בֵּית דִּין וְעָשָׂה תְּשׁוּבָה, תְּשׁוּבָה תּוֹלָה וְיוֹם הַכִּפּוּרִים מְכַפֵּר, וּבְאֵלּוּ נֶאֱמַר (ויקרא טז-ל) “כִּי בַיּוֹם הַזֶּה יְכַפֵּר עֲלֵיכֶם”. עָבַר עַל כְּרֵתוֹת וּמִיתוֹת בֵּית דִּין וְעָשָׂה תְּשׁוּבָה, תְּשׁוּבָה וְיוֹם הַכִּפּוּרִים תּוֹלִין וְיִסּוּרִין הַבָּאִין עָלָיו גּוֹמְרִין לוֹ הַכַּפָּרָה. וּלְעוֹלָם אֵין מִתְכַּפֵּר לוֹ כַּפָּרָה גְּמוּרָה עַד שֶׁיָּבוֹאוּ עָלָיו יִסּוּרִין, וּבְאֵלּוּ נֶאֱמַר (תהילים פט-לג) “וּפָקַדְתִּי בְשֵׁבֶט פִּשְׁעָם וּבִנְגָעִים עֲוֹנָם”. בַּמֶּה דְּבָרִים אֲמוּרִים בְּשֶׁלֹּא חִלֵּל אֶת הַשֵּׁם בְּשָׁעָה שֶׁעָבַר אֲבָל הַמְחַלֵּל אֶת הַשֵּׁם אַף עַל פִּי שֶׁעָשָׂה תְּשׁוּבָה וְהִגִּיעַ יוֹם הַכִּפּוּרִים וְהוּא עוֹמֵד בִּתְשׁוּבָתוֹ וּבָאוּ עָלָיו יִסּוּרִין אֵינוֹ מִתְכַּפֵּר לוֹ כַּפָּרָה גְּמוּרָה עַד שֶׁיָּמוּת. אֶלָּא תְּשׁוּבָה יוֹם הַכִּפּוּרִים וְיִסּוּרִין שְׁלָשְׁתָּן תּוֹלִין וּמִיתָה מְכַפֶּרֶת שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר (ישעיה כב-יד) “וְנִגְלָה בְאָזְנָי יקוק צְבָאוֹת” וְגוֹ’ (ישעיה כב-יד) “אִם יְכֻפַּר הֶעָוֹן הַזֶּה לָכֶם עַד תְּמֻתוּן”: (4) Even though teshuvah atones for all, and the day of Yom Kippur itself atones – there are some sins that can be atoned for in their time, and some sins which are only atoned after time has passed. What case is that? If a person violated a positive commandment for which the punishment is not karet and did teshuvah – before he can even move he is forgiven, and regarding such people it is said, Return, backsliding children; I will heal your backslidings (Jeremiah 3:22).If a person violated a negative commandment for which the punishment is neither karet nor capital punishment and did teshuvah – the teshuvah suspends it and Yom Kippur effects atonement; and regarding such people it is said, For that day will atone for you (Leviticus 16:30). If a person violated [a commandment for which the punishment is] karet or capital punishment and did teshuvah – the teshuvah and Yom Kippur suspend it and the suffering that falls upon him effects atonement. And no matter how much time passes, he does not receive full atonement until suffering falls upon him; and regarding such people it is said, Then will I visit their transgression with the rod, and their iniquity with strokes (Psalms 89:33). What cases are we discussing? Cases in which he did not disgrace the name [of God] at the moment of violation. But someone who disgraces the name [of God], even if he does teshuvah, and Yom Kippur passes and he remains in his teshuvah, and suffering befalls him – he does not receive full atonement until he dies; the teshuvah, Yom Kippur, and the suffering all suspend and death atones, as it says, And the Lord of Hosts revealed Himself in my ears: Surely this iniquity shall not be atoned until you die (Isaiah 22:14).
  1. What possibilities does the Rambam’s idea of Teshuva open up for the “just assassin” model of dirty hands? Could this be the “compound view” that Waltzer is searching for? Spell out how it would work.
  2. Considering all of the things we do Teshuva for on Tisha be’Av, is there any reason to add Teshuva for dirty hands as a part of our Tisha be-Av observance? How would we mark it? 

Taanit 21a:8-10

אמרו עליו על נחום איש גם זו שהיה סומא משתי עיניו גידם משתי ידיו קיטע משתי רגליו וכל גופו מלא שחין והיה מוטל בבית רעוע ורגלי מטתו מונחין בספלין של מים כדי שלא יעלו עליו נמלים… אמרו לו תלמידיו רבי וכי מאחר שצדיק גמור אתה למה עלתה לך כך אמר להם בניי אני גרמתי לעצמי שפעם אחת הייתי מהלך בדרך לבית חמי והיה עמי משוי ג’ חמורים אחד של מאכל ואחד של משתה ואחד של מיני מגדים בא עני אחד ועמד לי בדרך ואמר לי רבי פרנסני אמרתי לו המתן עד שאפרוק מן החמור לא הספקתי לפרוק מן החמור עד שיצתה נשמתו הלכתי ונפלתי על פניו ואמרתי עיני שלא חסו על עיניך יסומו ידיי שלא חסו על ידיך יתגדמו רגליי שלא חסו על רגליך יתקטעו ולא נתקררה דעתי עד שאמרתי כל גופי יהא מלא שחין אמרו לו אוי לנו שראינוך בכך אמר להם אוי לי אם לא ראיתוני בכךIt was said about Nahum of Gamzu that he was blind in both eyes and whithered in both hands and amputated in both feet and his whole body was covered with boils. He was located in a rickety house and the legs of his bed were placed in bowls of water so that ants would not climb up onto him. Once, [his bed was placed in a rickety house] his students wanted to move his bed and then to remove the household vessels. He said to them, “My sons, remove the vessels and then remove the bed for I am certain that so long as I am in the house, it will not fall.” They removed the vessels and then they removed the bed and the house fell. His students said to him, “Master, Since you are completely righteous, how did you come to this state?” He said to them, “My sons, I caused it to myself. For once I was walking on the road to my father-in-law’s house and I had three loaded donkeys with me, one loaded with food, another with drinks, and another with delicacies. A poor person approached and stood before me in the road and said to me, “Master, feed me!” I said to him, “Wait until I’ve unloaded the donkey.” I did not finish unloading the donkey before he died! I went and fell on his face and said, “My eyes that were not compassionate to your eyes should go blind! My hands that were not compassionate to your hands should whither! My legs which were not compassionate to your legs should be amputated!” And my conscience wasn’t satisfied until I said, “Let my whole body be covered with boils!” They said to him, “Woe to us that we’ve seen you thus!” He said to them, “Woe to me if you hadn’t seen me thus.”
  1. How does this story reflect the position of the Rambam stated above?
  2. What is the difference between the case of Nachum of Gamzu and the dilemma of “dirty hands”? Can we learn anything useful from the story for the dilemma?

Rabban Gamliel and Rabbi Eliezer

Bava Metzia 59b:1-11

תנא באותו היום השיב רבי אליעזר כל תשובות שבעולם ולא קיבלו הימנו…יצאתה בת קול ואמרה מה לכם אצל ר”א שהלכה כמותו בכ”מ עמד רבי יהושע על רגליו ואמר (דברים ל, יב) לא בשמים היא…אותו היום הביאו כל טהרות שטיהר ר”א ושרפום באש ונמנו עליו וברכוהו…ר”ג היה בא בספינה עמד עליו נחשול לטבעו אמר כמדומה לי שאין זה אלא בשביל ר”א בן הורקנוס עמד על רגליו ואמר רבונו של עולם גלוי וידוע לפניך שלא לכבודי עשיתי ולא לכבוד בית אבא עשיתי אלא לכבודך שלא ירבו מחלוקות בישראל נח הים מזעפו אימא שלום דביתהו דר”א אחתיה דר”ג הואי מההוא מעשה ואילך לא הוה שבקה ליה לר”א למיפל על אפיה ההוא יומא ריש ירחא הוה ואיחלף לה בין מלא לחסר איכא דאמרי אתא עניא וקאי אבבא אפיקא ליה ריפתא אשכחתיה דנפל על אנפיה אמרה ליה קום קטלית לאחי אדהכי נפק שיפורא מבית רבן גמליאל דשכיב…It was taught: On that day R. Eliezer answered all the answers on earth and they did not accept it from him… a heavenly voice came out and said, “What have you with R. Eliezer, who the law is like him in every place?” R. Yehoshua stood on his feet and said “[The Torah] is not in heaven,” (Deuteronomy 30:12)… On that day they burned all the pure things R. Eliezer had declared pure; they voted upon him and excommunicated him… R. Gamliel was on a ship; a wave stood upon him to drown him. He said: It appears to me this is only because of R. Eliezer b. Hyrkanos. He stood on his feet and said, “Master of the world, it is revealed and known before You that not for my honor I did nor for the honor of my father’s house but for Your honor that controversies not multiply in Israel.” The sea rested from its anger. Ima Shalom, wife of R. Eliezer, was R. Gamliel’s sister; from then she did not allow R. Eliezer to fall on his face in prayer. One day the New Moon and she miscalculated between a twenty-nine or thirty day month. Some say: a poor man came and stood at the gate, she brought out bread to him. She found R. Eliezer fallen in prayer and said, “Get up, you have killed my brother.” Meanwhile a ram’s horn blast went out from R. Gamliel’s house [to announce] that he died…

Sanhedrin 68a:1-10

כשחלה ר’ אליעזר נכנסו ר’ עקיבא וחביריו לבקרו… נכנסו וישבו לפניו מרחוק ד’ אמות א”ל למה באתם א”ל ללמוד תורה באנו א”ל ועד עכשיו למה לא באתם א”ל לא היה לנו פנאי אמר להן תמיה אני אם ימותו מיתת עצמן…נטל שתי זרועותיו והניחן על לבו אמר אוי לכם שתי זרועותיי שהן כשתי ספרי תורה שנגללין הרבה תורה למדתי והרבה תורה לימדתי…ולא עוד אלא שאני שונה שלש מאות הלכות בבהרת עזה ולא היה אדם ששואלני בהן דבר מעולם ולא עוד אלא שאני שונה שלש מאות הלכות ואמרי לה שלשת אלפים הלכות בנטיעת קשואין ולא היה אדם שואלני בהן דבר מעולם חוץ מעקיבא בן יוסף פעם אחת אני והוא מהלכין היינו בדרך אמר לי רבי למדני בנטיעת קשואין אמרתי דבר אחד נתמלאה כל השדה קשואין אמר לי רבי למדתני נטיעתן למדני עקירתן אמרתי דבר אחד נתקבצו כולן למקום אחד אמרו לו הכדור והאמוס והקמיע וצרור המרגליות ומשקולת קטנה מהו אמר להן הן טמאין וטהרתן במה שהן מנעל שעל גבי האמוס מהו אמר להן הוא טהור ויצאה נשמתו בטהרה עמד רבי יהושע על רגליו ואמר הותר הנדר הותר הנדר…When R. Eliezer fell ill, R. Akiva and his fellows came in to visit him… they went in and sat before him, but remained four amot away. Said he, “why have you come?” “We have come to learn Torah,” they responded. “And why have you not come until now?” “We did not have time.” “I will be surprised if they die natural deaths.”…
He took his two arms and placed them on his heart and said, “woe unto you my two arms that they are like two Torah scrolls that are rolled up. I learned much Torah and taught much Torah….
“And furthermore, I have learned 300 laws about the appearance of unclean blemishes, but no one has ever asked me about them. And furthermore, I have learned 300 laws [and quote him as saying 3000 laws] about planting squashes, and no one has ever asked me about them besides Akiva ben Yosef. For one time he and I were walking along the road.
He said to me ‘Master, teach me about the planting of squashes.’
I responded with one word, and the whole field filled with cucumbers.
He said to me, ‘Master, you have taught me about planting them, now teach me about uprooting them.’
I responded with one word, and they all gathered in one place.”
[R. Eliezer’s visitors] said to him, “A ball, a shoemaker’s last, an amulet, a bag of pearls, and a small weight: what is the law [regarding their purity]?
He said to them, “they can become impure and can be purified just as they are.”
“A shoe that is on the shoemaker’s last, what is the law [regarding its purity]?”
He said to them, “It can not become impure.”
His soul then departed in purity.
R. Yehoshua stood on his feet and said “The vow is released, the vow is released.”

Berakhot 28b:6-7

ת”ר כשחלה ר’ אליעזר נכנסו תלמידיו לבקרו אמרו לו רבינו למדנו אורחות חיים ונזכה בהן לחיי העולם הבא אמר להם הזהרו בכבוד חבריכם ומנעו בניכם מן ההגיון והושיבום בין ברכי תלמידי חכמים וכשאתם מתפללים דעו לפני מי אתם עומדים ובשביל כך תזכו לחיי העולם הבאOur Rabbis have taught : When R. Eliezer was ill, his disciples went in to visit him. They said to him, “Master, teach us the ways of life whereby we may be worthy of the life of the world to come.” He said to them, “Be careful of the honour of your colleagues ; restrain your children from recitation, and seat them between the knees of the disciples of the wise ; and when you pray, know before Whom ye stand ; and on that account will you be worthy of the life of the world to come.”
  1. Does Rabban Gamliel fit any of the models put forward by Waltzer? Can we see the consequences of his attitudes in his death? 
  2. If we cast Rabbi Eliezer as Machiavelli’s prince, how should we understand his lament that he has so much Torah that he was never able to teach. If we cast him as the suffering servant, how might our understaning of his lament change. How might our understanding of the whole story change? What does this suggest about the usefulness of one model rather than the other in our own lives?