The Lesser of Two Bads
Parsha and its fulfillment - Parashat Vayakhel - Rabbi Eliezer Shenvald - 5769
Our Parasha is a continuation of the sin of the golden calf. "And Moses assembled [all the Congregation of the Children of Israel] — on the morrow after the Day of Atonement when he came down from the mountain." (Rashi, Shmot 35: 1), and in his hands the Second Tablets, Moshe Rabbeinu congregates the people of Israel and commands them to observe the Shabbat:
"Moses then convoked the whole Israelite community and said to them: These are the things that Hashem has commanded you to do" (Shmot 35:1).
After the atonement for the sin of the golden calf begins the era of the second Tablets and the completion of the correction of the sin of the golden calf." This era begins with Moshe's decision to break the first Tablets: "As soon as Moses came near the camp and saw the calf and the dancing, he became enraged; and he hurled the tablets from his hands and shattered them at the foot of the mountain." (Shmot 32:19).
The sages seek to crack the motive for breaking the tablets, which is a terrible act in itself, for it is a Divine creation entrusted to him: "The tablets were G-d’s work, and the writing was G-d’s writing, incised upon the tablets." (ibid 16.) And how does Moshe decide to do such a thing? Chazal respond that the other side was a weighty consideration. In the situation where the people of Israel were, there was no one who was appropriate to receive the sacred Tablets: " And he broke the tablets following the sin of the Golden Calf. What source did he interpret that led him to do so? Moses said: With regard to the Paschal lamb, which is only one of six hundred and thirteen mitzvot, the Torah stated: “And the Lord said unto Moses and Aaron: This is the ordinance of the Paschal offering; no alien shall eat of it” (Shmot 12:43), referring not only to gentiles, but to apostate Jews as well. Regarding the tablets, which represented the entire Torah, and Israel at that moment were apostates, as they were worshipping the calf, all the more so are they not worthy of receiving the Torah." (Shabbat 87a)
In other words, whether the act of the golden calf was truly idolatrous or whether it was merely an alternative request to the change Moshe's leadership, this is a very serious act that equates a nation with the apostates, and requires an appropriate response. And therefore, between the two options whether to break or give them, in this situation he had to choose the 'lesser bad': "Only Moshe Rabbeinu did not find any other advice to save them, and caught the lesser of two evils "(Beit HaLevi, Drashot). The Netziv interprets that the very act of the calf by Aaron was also the choice of "lesser bad" (Haamek Davar on Shmot 32:5).
In this act Moshe Rabbeinu opened the door to clarifying a fundamental issue from the moral and halakhic point of view of how to choose when there is a dilemma between choosing bad and choosing the worst. After all, the very breaking of the tablets of G-d is a bad act. But there is a worse alternative.
In order to prevent the worst, it is permissible to actively choose the 'lesser bad' in something that is bad, on its own, or in this situation, 'better not to do' whatever happens, provided that we do not choose a bad thing on its own.
The righteous and the purist will probably choose the 'better not to do' over something that is bad on its own. And will not take into consideration, G-d forbid, the 'purpose that sanctifies the means', that the prevention of bad will require to choose something that is bad on its own even though it is 'the lesser bad'. To justify their choice, will quote verses from the Nevi'im who demand to fight and deny the evil uncompromisingly: "Seek good and not evil, that you may live, and that Hashem, the God of Hosts, May truly be with you, As you think.
Hate evil and love good, and establish justice in the gate; Perhaps Hashem, the God of Hosts, Will be gracious to the remnant of Joseph. " (Amos 14-15).
But Moshe decided differently, he chose 'the lesser bad'. And the Shechina justified his choice: "And from where do we derive that the Holy One, Blessed be He, agreed with his reasoning? As it is stated: “The first tablets which you broke [asher shibarta]” (Exodus 34:1), and Reish Lakish said: The word asher is an allusion to the phrase: May your strength be true [yishar koḥakha] due to the fact that you broke the tablets. '" (Shabbat 87a).
In a moral and theoretical world, there is a possibility of a dichotomy between the "distinct good" and the "bad" and there is no need to decide in the dilemma between "bad" and "worst." Both are bad and forbidden.
But the reality of practical and complex life, and the political world does not have the privilege to avoid it: " A person should be a having to choose good over better, etc. And also if he has to do bad in his actions, will choose the lesser bad because all who indulged in evil will ease his punishment" (R. Eliezer Papo, Peleh Yo'etz - the value of a choice, and a number of other values in his book, as well as systematically ruling on halakhic dilemmas in his halakhic book, Hesed La'alafim).
At the Yeshiva, we teach students Halachic Strategies and among them, about the 'lesser bad'; how Chachamim in every generation learned from Moshe, actively ruled to choose the lesser bad to avoid worse, even though it might not look good morally; and there will be the righteous and purists who will argue 'how do they give halachic legitimacy to something that is bad in its own right'?! This is not only an option it is their duty! And where they do not, the blame will be around, similar to the dilemma of Zechariah ben Avkolas, who refrained from ruling and led to destruction: "Rabbi Yoḥanan says: The excessive humility of Rabbi Zekharya ben Avkolas destroyed our Temple, burned our Sanctuary, and exiled us from our land". (Gittin 56a).