9/19/2010

Negotiations

[I wrote most of this on Erev Yom Kippur, but ran out of time and was unable to post it beforehand]

The parsha of Ki Tavo coincides annually with the second Shabbat before Rosh Hashana. The most prominent feature of the parsha is the blessing and curses that God promises for upholding or failing to uphold the Torah. A superficial look will show quite obviously that the curses, the tokhecha, is much longer than the promised blessings. In fact, there is a general pattern that the warnings against breaching God’s covenant are generally much longer and more detailed than the promises of reward for obedience.
Negotiation is a tricky business. It involves getting two (or more) parties to consent to some kind of mutually beneficial association. In order for negotiations to succeed, the agreement must be in the best interest of each side. The more each party feels that it has no choice but to come to an understanding, the greater the chance that the negotiations will succeed. This is true of any and every negotiation.
As a result, the reward for upholding an agreement should be self-evident – if it were not worth my while to enter into the association, I would not have done so. Sure, there can be incentives along the way, but the real benefit of the agreement should be part and parcel of the agreement itself, not some external sanction or incentive. On the other hand, building sanctions into an agreement can keep each party honest. The greater the penalty for backing out of an agreement, the less likely a party is to have a change of heart and breach the contract. This accounts for the length of the tokhecha as well as the small print on any contract.
Currently, the NFL Players Association and the NFL owners are in the initial stages of negotiating a new collective bargaining agreement. Though there may be a lockout, everybody knows that the players and owners will eventually come to an agreement. After all, the players and owners desperately need each other. The owners can’t play, the players don’t have the resources to run a team, and the benefit that accrues to both when a team is fielded is way too great for either side to terminate the relationship for any extended period of time.
Contrast that with the current negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. The recent articles by Karl Vick and Roger Cohen about whether Israelis are truly invested in the peace process point to a reality that I think is accurate, even if the authors did not necessarily unpack it correctly: Israelis want peace, no doubt. But things are good enough in Israel right now that the incentives offered by peace do not justify the risks that peacemaking entails. Israelis are not desperate for peace, because, frankly, life is pretty darn good without it. And so the price they’re willing to pay for peace is not so high (I’m not judging whether this prevailing attitude is good or bad, or whether it has any bearing on the actual negotiation process, which much address a far more complex reality – those are much longer posts).
This is all by way of introduction to the intense negotiations that Jewish people all over the world will hold with their God over the next day. The primal, mythic core of Yom Kippur is the re-enactment of God’s selection of Israel and His entry into a covenant with them (the most potent symbols of this are the se’ir La-Shem and the second Luchot). Our basis for negotiations (see here) is that our collective relationship with God is akin to that of the players vis-à-vis ownership; we are powerless yet indispensable to His goals (Rav Ezra Bick has a wonderful discussion of this concept here), and He therefore must renew His covenant with us.
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