Distinguishing Compassion from Cruelty

Rivka Imeinu’s nurturing taught how to combine the trait of unconditional kindness with an attribute of cleverness and savvy, and the wisdom and discipline to know when to use each.

Moshe Burt


In writing on Parshiyot Chayei Sarah and Toldos, this author cited Rebbetzin Shira Smiles from her sefer "Torah Tapestries" in discussing  the attributes of unconditional kindness and bringing unity possessed by Rivka Imeinu [Matriarch] and how these attributes in her merited the resumption of the Lamp burning and the Blessed Dough from Shabbos to Shabbos in the tent of Sarah Imeinu, as well as the Cloud of Glory which resumed hovering over the tent continuously.  

Rebbetzin Smiles ("Torah Tapestries", Parsha Toldos, pages 89-90) cites Rabbi Eliyahu Yedid's explanation of Rivka Imeinu's test of overcoming her nature of kindness and fostering of unity, and the role it played in Yaakov Avinu [Patriarch]'s receiving his father's Brachot

For sixty years, Rivka Imeinu guarded an important secret, a prophecy she shared with no one.

When Yaakov and Eisev were in her womb and struggling within her, she had gone to the Yeshiva of Shem and Ever, to a Navi, for guidance and insight.  There she received the prophecy:  "...there are two nations in you... and two nations will come forth from within you... and the nations will struggle one with the other and the older one will serve the younger one."  (Sefer Breish't Perek 25, posul 23)

Rivka Imeinu knew who deserved the blessing -- the younger one, Yaakov.  But since it was a prophecy and it was given to her and not to Yitzchak Avinu, she felt that she had to keep it to herself.  She walked around for sixty years with this in her heart, wondering when she was going to see this prophecy played out.    When she heard her husband tell Eisev that he was going to bless him, Rivka decided that... it was time to take action.

Rabbi Yedid's key point is one to which many women can relate....  Rivka Imeinu 's struggle was the struggle of a mother who had to choose between two children whom she loved.   We see... that throughout the chapter, she is referred to as the mother of both Yaakov and Eisev.  For example; "Rivka took the special clothing of Eisev, her older son, which were with her in the house, and she dressed Yaakov, her younger son."  (Breish't Perek 27, posuk 15)

Additionally, this posuk shows that Eisev didn't trust his wives with his special clothing; his mother kept it for him.  There was a special relationship between Rivka and both sons.

But it seems clear to this author that the attributes which Rivka showed in passing her Divine Test, in facilitating Yaakov's disguise, the meal presentation to Yitzchak Avinu and urging Yaakov Avinu to override his character trait of truth in order to receive the Brachot were not totally foreign to her mind-frame.  

In order to understand this other dimension of Rivka Imeinu, it is necessary to look back at the evil environment in which she was nurtured, which surrounded her in "Aram Naharaim, ... the city of Nahor" (Sefer Breish't, Perek 24, posuk 11) and which was personified by her father Bethuel and her brother Lavan.  

It was an environment which Rivka Imeinu rose above as exemplified by her unconditional kindness such as to Avraham Avinu's servant Eliezer, but an environment which seemed invaluable in positioning her to achieve success both in passing her Divine Test and in urging Yaakov Avinu regarding the Brachot.

Also, Parsha Toldos contrasts Eisev and Yaakov telling us (Sefer Breish't, Perek 25, posuk 27):

"The lads grew up and Eisev became one who knows hunting, a man of the fields; but Yaakov was a wholesome man, abiding in tents."

The loshen in Hebrew "Ish Tam" is used to describe Yaakov, the "wholesome man" or the plain man, in the above verse.  

We learn later, in Parsha Vayeitzei, that Yaakov told Rachel;

“‘…that he was her father’s kinsman’, according to the Sages, ‘If he has come to be sly, I am his kinsman in being sly.’” (Rashi on Breish’t Perek 29, posuk 12)

We learn in our Parsha that Yaakov was “totally honest, a man of great integrity” but was also master over the trait of being “tam”, a “‘plain man’, … without trickery. This means that Yaakov did not allow this “Ish Tam” character trait to dominate him. He knew when and where to act otherwise. We knew that from his demand for the birthright from Eisev in exchange for the lentil soup. These traits surely seemed inculcated to Yaakov as a result of Rivka Imeinu’s nurturing: the combining of the trait of unconditional kindness with an attribute of cleverness and savvy, and with the wisdom and discipline to know when to use each.

The Hozeh of Lublin quotes the Sages saying;

Whoever is compassionate where he should be cruel will eventually be cruel where should be compassionate.
“Whoever is compassionate where he should be cruel will eventually be cruel where should be compassionate.... A person needs to be master over all of his traits. If he fails to apply so-called negative traits in their proper times, he will end up applying them when it is wrong to do so.  A person needs to know how to act in different circumstances, sometimes one way to further the will of Hashem and other times the exact opposite way for the same end.” (”Growth Through Torah” by Rabbi Zelig Pliskin on Parsha Toldos, pages 62-63, “Torah Gems” by Aharon Yaakov Greenberg, on Parsha Toldos, page 203)

And so throughout our history, and with special emphasis in contemporary times through the 20th century and into our century, again and again we see this Talmudic adage played out; “Whoever is compassionate where he should be cruel will eventually be cruel where should be compassionate.”

But Rav Pliskin in “Growth Through Torah” adds another ingredient to to The Hozeh of Lublin's comments about copmpassion and cruelty.  Rav Pliskin expresses the importance of judging people favorably. But he then goes on to quote Rabbi Yeruchem Levovitz who says that “if someone is an evil person we are obligated to judge him unfavorably. Some people may find this rather harsh, but that is the reality: with evil people assume the worst. (Rabbi Yeruchem Levovitz; Daas Torah: Breish’t, Pge. 192)”

Rav Pliskin continues that:

 “We need to master the ability of seeing the good in the bad and the bad in the good. Then we need to know when to use each ability. Judging an evil person on the side of merit is not a virtue but a fault. Failure to be on guard to protect yourself from a deceitful person can cause you and others much damage and heartache. … The way of the Torah is to use wisdom to know when to assume negative motivations and when to judge others favorably.”

While Rav Pliskin says that it’s unfortunate:

 “…That many people fail to judge others favorably when they really should”, he also says that the opposite, the tendency “…of believing everyone is considered …to be the attribute of a fool.” (Growth Through Torah, Rabbi Zelig Pliskin, Parsha Vayeitzei, pages 75-76)

And so, it seems that there is this attribute judging and distinguishing the “good in the bad” favorably and the “bad in the good” negatively. This attribute would seem to go hand-in-hand with applying one’s own positive and negative attributes at the appropriate times, i.e., compassion to the compassionate and cruelty to the evil.

The attribute of distinguishing good from evil, when to be compassionate and when cruelty is necessary, is to understand the impact of the message; compassion or cruelty.

Having just completed reading the book "Perfidy" by Ben Hecht, this author gains a further perspective on The Hozeh of Lublin's 'compassion to the cruel and eventual cruelty to the compassionate', Rav Pliskin's distinguishing between judging favorably vs assuming negative motivations, as well as Yaakov Avinu's nurturing under the wing of Rivka Imeinu.   

In this regard, words uttered to this author once by a former work associate from back in "the old country" during a conversation centering around Israel's 30th anniversary of statehood, ring true to this very day.   Those words regarding the State of Israel which were uttered by this former work associate at least 20 years my senior were, plain and simply, "They did what they had to do."

The lack of wisdom, backbone and discipline as to when to show kindness and when to show cunning is as prevalent among the bureaucratic, intelligentsia, media, political and governmental leaders of the State of Israel today; i.e. framing an individual, and by connection an entire sector of Am Yisrael, for the murder of a head of state-- without investigating the claim that  X-rays of the body show that wound that killed came from the front, not the back where the accused was said to be firing (blanks, blanks), the expulsion of Jews from Gush Katif, the numerous instances of demolishment of Jewish homes, harrassments and evictions of Jews from their homes throughout Yehudah and the Shomron since, the handcuffed impotency of the IDF in losing 2 major military engagements since the eviction from Gush Katif.

This is how it was when the entire wrath of the Jewish Agency and early socialist Israeli governance came down on poor, elderly Malchiel Greenwald who dared scream verbally and in little pamphlets, scarcely read by anyone, about alleged collaboration between a functionary of a "Jewish Rescue" organization in Hungary, which was connected with the wartime Jewish Agency, and Nazi German military officers as the trains to Auschwitz started to grind -- 12,000 per day, in April, 1944.   They charged Greenwald with slander and sedition.

According to Hecht's "Perfidy," in the end after an endlessly long proceeding, the elderly Greenwald was vindicated thanks to a brilliant defense attorney who picked apart all of the deceptions of the Jewish Agency functionary and due to a verdict handed down by a righteous and courageous Israeli District Court Judge, while the Jewish Agency functionary was then slated to stand trial for collaboration with Nazis -- the only offense punishable by death in early Statehood Israel.  

This Jewish Agency functionary allegedly went so far as to have allegedly given testimony on behalf of one of the Nazi collaborators which resulted in the collaborator allegedly being found innocent of war crimes at various tribunals.   But lo, it appears that "They (the Israeli government and Jewish Agency of the time) did what they had to do" -- as Hecht records that the Jewish Agency functionary, Dr. Rudolf Kastner was gunned down as he arrived home from work in Tel Aviv.  He died a week later of his wounds.   Hecht writes in "Perfidy" (page 208):  

The actual confessed killer was, until a few months before shooting down Kastner, a paid undercover agent of the Israeli government's Intelligence service.

The Jewish Agency and the pre-State "zionist" main characters -- Ben-Gurion, Weizman, Sharett all allegedly bowed to British edict and irrevocably sentenced Europe's Jewry to their fate ("Perfidy", page 20-21 ):

"....They will bear their fate...  They were dust, economic and moral dust in a cruel world.... They had to accept it....  I pray that we may preserve our national unity, for it is all we have." (citing Chaim Weizman in The New Judea: Official organ of the Zionist Organization of England, April, 1937)

"What will be the fate of all these people?  ....For our people here, for millions of them, a horrible and monstrous fate is waiting....  At the end -- and this is the blessing and most important thing -- this war is bound to bring about a blessing to England."  (citing from an article by S.N. Behrman which appears in the book "Chaim Weizman -- The Builder of Zion," published by Hebrew University of Jerusalem)

But it seemed, according to "Perfidy", that Kastner was but a small-fry in allegedly collaborating with the Nazis in order to rescue a few hundred friends and close associates in rural Hungary as the Auschwitz trains ground on, at 12,000 per day, to gas nearly a million Hungarian Jews.   The Kastner story leads to a far larger one.  

The person who could make or break the Jewish Agency's alleged contrivance with British edict was another functionary in Hungary-- Joel Brand, a Jewish Agency associate of Kastner.  

Brand, after meeting with, and receiving a proposal from Adolf Eichman in Budapest in April of 1944 (as Nazi Germany's military fortunes were falling before the Allied onslaught) offering to spare Hungary's 1,000,000 Jews in exchange for tons of tea, coffee and 10,000 trucks with the 1st hundred thousand Jews to be released in advance upon Jewish acceptance of the proposal, was allegedly, according to the book, sent by the Jewish Agency on a wild goose chase trying to find Moshe Sharett in Turkey. 

Brand is warned by Eichman that he needs an answer within 2 weeks or the trains begin to grind to Auschwitz.   Brand receives a draft acceptance document of the proposal from Jewish Agency functionaries in Turkey.  Then he is told by associates in Turkey to meet Sharett in Aleppo (in British-held territory).  With a draft agreement document accepted by the Jewish Agency functionaries, he could have flown immediately back to Budapest to present it to Eichman and receive release of the 1st hundred thousand Jews.   But, as a loyal Jewish Agency functionary and unknowing of the apparent deceit of the Jewish Agency's 3 principles (mentioned above), he travels on circuitously to Allepo on the Palestine, Syrian border accompanied by another Jewish Agency employee.   His companion keeps keeps reassuring Brand that all will be well.   

Along the way, an individual connected with Jabotinsky boards the train, seeks out Brand and warns him of the alleged trap set by the Jewish Agency awaiting him in Allepo.   Still full of faith in the morals and integrity of the Jewish Agency, Sharett and Weizman, Brand continues on his trip only to be abandoned by his Jewish Agency companion an hour from Allepo.   Upon arrival, Brand is arrested by the British, held for months and never does make it back to Budapest as the slaughter trains grind from Hungary toward Auschwitz ovens carrying their 12,000 per day cargo.   "They did what they had to do?"

It is impossible to adequately encapsulate the story of Hungary, 1944 and the trains to Auschwitz in a mere few sentences as has been attempted here.

At any given point during the above story, Brand could, had he had the wisdom to see through the apparent deceit manufactured seemingly at all levels of the Jewish Agency, have exited back to Budapest with the draft agreement had he possessed the dual middot of Yaakov Avinu-- unconditional kindness and cleverness, had he been nutured by a Rivka Imeinu. 

Imagine the spectre of the possiblility of one man's actions saving the lives of hundreds of thousands, if not 1 million Jews.   But instead, he was merely an "Ish Tam" nurtured with an endoctrinated Jewish Agency mindset of loyalty and false belief in the integrity of its leaders which he just couldn't rise above -- a box which he just couldn't break out of.

But this author backs up the calendar to just a couple of days after the start of the Yom Kippur war.   It's 5PM in the afternoon back in Philadelphia and a call is placed to the local JCRC (Jewish Community Relations Council).   A querie is asked of the executive director, one Albert Chernin, who surprisingly is still answering phones late in the afternoon.  

"Where do I give blood for Israeli soldiers?"   Chernin's response:  "They don't need your blood!"    

 Israel caught "unawares."  Sparse numbers of IDF soldiers overrun by Egyptian and Syrian armies in the early hours of the war and "They don't need your blood?"  From that 5 word response from Chernin, this author has been skeptical about the righteousness and sincerity of Federations, JCRCs, and establishment Jewish organizations and so-called "leadership".  For who among Am Yisrael ever mandated them as our "leaders" as our representatives who are therefore fit to speak on our behalf?   And the reality is that this skepticizm, cynicism -- the ability to see over and past indoctrination and brainwashing has been borne out and validated personally again and again.

But we still await in our time, the “Ish Tam” -- a Real Jewish Leader, the “totally honest … man of great integrity”, the master over the trait of being “tam”, the “‘plain man’, … without trickery”, who “knew when and where to act otherwise” but who did not allow this “Ish Tam” character trait to dominate him. Is he around the corner? Do we know him? Will he come in our lifetime?

May our actions, both as individuals and as a Khal, regarding our fellow Jews merit acquiring such Divine wisdom as necessary to humble the evil-doers -- no matter how big they are or how important or intimidating their titles seem.