The Perfect Deal

An acquaintance of mine once told me bitterly that his father had once explained to him his theory of successful negotiation: It is when the negotiator  (meaning himself) walks away with everything he wanted, and the other party doesn’t.

My friend then turned to me and said that throughout his childhood, his father had made all kinds of deals with him that my friend walked away from feeling beaten down, unable to explain why he felt so badly afterwards. It wasn’t until his father had explained his “negotiating” tactics to him later, as a teen, that he had understood what had happened.

Of course, as adults, we all look at this and wonder how a father could do such a thing to a child, who hasn’t got the tools to fight back. Yet, many of us seem to believe that this is indeed how negotiation should go when we are speaking of nations, or organizations, or companies  — especially when it is our own interests at stake. Deep down, we believe that negotiation has to give us altogether and entirely what we want, or else we should take our marbles and go home. We think to ourselves that if there is any risk left at the conclusion of our back-and-forth, it must all be on the other side, because — of course — we know that our own motivations are right and good, but who knows the motivations of the other side?

The rabbis of the Talmud warn us against such one-sided wins. There are several stories that warn of the bad effects of winner-takes-all. One such is the famous story of The Oven of Achnai. Many of us are familiar with this rabbinic debate in which a group of  rabbis sat together and debated a point of law, all of them opposed to Rabbi Eliezer‘s position. Nothing sways the majority to change their opinion: not Rabbi Eliezer’s arguments, not miracles — not even a voice from heaven.

One of the rabbis, Rabbi Yehoshua finally asserts, “We pay no attention to a divine voice because long ago at Mount Sinai You wrote in Your Torah, ‘After the majority must one incline.’ (Exodus 23:2)” God reportedly laughs, but that isn’t the end of the story, or even its main point.

The story ends with the rabbis destroying all the work of Rabbi Eliezer: all his decisions up to that point are overturned, and he is cast out from the community. His sorrow causes Rabban Gamliel, the head of the court, to die and his treatment causes devastation throughout the world.

The rabbis knew, and want us to know, that even though there are times when one side has the power, and sometimes even the right, to enforce its full and complete will on others,  there is a very high cost to be paid. The Talmud (Sanhedrin 6b and elsewhere) rules that arbitration and compromise -(pesharah)  פשרה – is a mitzvah.  And the great Israeli Justice Menachem Elon, commented, “Many reasons have been given for the preference of compromise over strict law. As stated, compromise engenders peace between the parties, a basic goal of doing justice …  Moreover, compromise obviates the feeling of the losing party that justice was not done and the truth abandoned.”

There are times when it seems necessary to demand our way in its entirety. But we should be careful — we have all heard the saying that “the perfect is the enemy of the good.” But sometimes perfection is in itself a force for destruction, and causes more damage, collateral and otherwise, than living with an imperfect deal, and leaving one’s opponents  room to save face.


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