The valley of decision

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“Multitudes upon multitudes in the Valley of Decision! For the day of the lord is at hand in the Valley of Decision.” —Joel 4:14

How strange, I thought, to call a place the Valley of Decision. But somehow if we could imagine decision-making in topographical terms, a valley might just capture what it is like to be in the throes of a difficult decision.

A valley is a low area surrounded by mountains. We often make critical decisions from a low place, a place of insecurity and vulnerability; when we look all around us, we feel surrounded by heights that we believe we cannot climb. Joel continued to describe this place: “Sun and moon are darkened, and stars withdraw their brightness. We’ve all been there.

This powerful image comes to us from one of the 12 minor prophetic books. They were minor only in size, not in spirit. The biblical prophet Joel bemoaned a plague of locusts that is described, in lyrical and devastating terms, as destroying crops and ruining the ancient Israelite economy. Joel called for collective reflection and repentance. He used the plague as a parable for other large challenges that seem beyond our control and can have severe and difficult consequences.

This is not the first time we meet a Joel in the Bible. The prophet Samuel had two sons: Joel and Aviyah. We learn that these two sons did not follow in their pious father’s footsteps: “They were bent on gain; they accepted bribes, and they subverted justice” (I Samuel 8:3). Their evil paved the way for kingship because the people rightly rejected Samuel's sons as leaders.

Some midrashim, rabbinic embellishments on the Bible, actually identify these two Joels as one and the same person, believing that Joel saw the error of his ways and reformed himself. This would have given him a lens with which to speak to the people from a place of personal darkness and change. Perhaps only one who has spent real time in the Valley of Decision can speak with authority about its darkness to others.

An 18th-century German commentator, Rabbi David Altschuler, observes that this place was really the Valley of Jehoshephat, a word that means “The Lord judges” and also mentioned in Joel. This valley was likely the site of a court that made quick and definitive judgments. Multitudes would gather there for the sake of justice to have their cases adjudicated. In other words, you came to the valley to have your case decided. Someone will always leave court elated and someone else will leave despondent.

Deborah Grayson Riegel’s new book, Oy Vey Isn’t a Strategy (I actually thought it was), offers 25 solutions for personal and professional success. She shares that when she coaches clients, they have often experienced disappointment and are quick to self-soothe. Sometimes this takes the form of believing that someone else’s burdens are bigger, thus making theirs smaller. While she acknowledges that this strategy shows willingness to move to a happier place, she invites the person back into their pain: “Too many of us feel that we’re not entitled to mourn when others have greater losses, or that if we do grieve, we’ll never leave that dark place.” In the same chapter, she quotes the wonderful Yiddish expression: “God gives us burdens and also shoulders.”

One of the gifts of the prophets was to give us a universal language in which to express human experience. Joel gives us the gift of his Valley of Decision and allows us to enter a dark place of ambiguity and confusion where everything seems overwhelming and large. But once we can enter that place of pain and acknowledge it and make affirmative decisions, we find ourselves on the edge of the valley and getting closer to a place of greater stability and confidence. We can’t be afraid to enter the valley. If we are, we'll never scale the mountain.

Dr. Erica Brown is a writer and educator who works as the scholar-in-residence for the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington and consults for the Jewish Agency and other Jewish non-profits. She is the author of In the Narrow Places(OU Press/Maggid); Inspired Jewish Leadership, a National Jewish Book Award finalist; Spiritual Boredom; and Confronting Scandal.

Editor’s note: This article is distributed with permission of Dr. Erica Brown. Subscribe to her “Weekly Jewish Wisdom” list at http://leadingwithmeaning.com.

Posted on October 25, 2012 and filed under Jewish Life, Torah Commentary.