The Relationship between Mercy and Cruelty

There is a fascinating midrash that gives great insight into tendencies in human behavior. The midrash is from the Book of Ecclesiastes and states the following: All who are merciful where they should be cruel ultimately are cruel where they should be merciful. The reference was to King Saul who showed mercy to King Agag and cruelty to the Priests of Nov.

It is essential that people have a realistic perception of reality. If they delude themselves and create their own subjective view on life, then it is likely that at some point someone who should be treated with mercy will inevitably be treated with cruelty. This manifests itself on many levels.

The first example of this is in our relationship with family and friends. When we refuse to see the flaws in these people and instead overcompensate and condone bad behavior, we will end up treating someone else very harshly when it is undeserved. We might rationalize by saying that there is so much history in these relationships, but it is unhealthy not to face the truth.

Another example would be seen in marriage. When a spouse makes serious loving gestures towards his partner, and these efforts are judged as insincere and having an ulterior motive, distance is created rather than closeness. The same applies in the reverse. When a spouse is treated badly and there is denial of this treatment, this unfair treatment will be expressed somewhere else. Often it is the children who will suffer from this refusal to accept reality.

When children act in an inappropriate manner and are in need of discipline and direction, and instead the parents spoil the child, it is cruelty and not mercy. A child needs to be shown right and wrong and when he isn’t, he will feel that his parents really don’t care about him.

This idea also manifests itself on a national level. When terrorists act in a most brutal and inhuman manner, and instead of calling this behavior evil and animalistic, we are told that we need to understand their frustration and if they were only given economic opportunities, they would behave better, something is very wrong. Such an injustice of misplaced mercy will manifest itself by having a loathing for those who make tremendous sacrifices to settle this land. There will also be an intolerance for those who choose to live a sacred life dedicated to Jewish values and intense study of the Torah.

We see this phenomenon when speaking of Jewish survival. When the Minister of Education wisely refuses to allow Jewish students to read books that glorify intermarriage and assimilation, and he is accused of denying two people the opportunity to express their love for one another, something is off. It is misplaced mercy to feel for the two lovers because such love has cruelly taken away far too many Jews away from their families and heritage. Such a value system of “if it feels good it’s right” leads a formerly respected political science professor to rant in a most vulgar and pathetic way against a political figure that has views different than his own.

We must do some serious soul searching and see if we might be guilty of such false perceptions. If we succeed in eliminating injustices, we will be true to ourselves, true to those who are deserving of our love, and true to our people and our country and our heritage. If we fail, we will end up treating our friends with cruelty and our enemies with mercy. There’s far too much at stake to being make such grievous errors.

About the Author
Rabbi Cohen has been a Torah instructor at Machon Meir, Jerusalem, for more than twenty years. He has been teaching a Talmud class in the Shtieblach, Old Katamon, Jerusalem, for the nearly seventeen years. Before coming to Israel, he was the founding rabbi of Young Israel of Century City, Los Angeles.