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Cruel to be Kind
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Cruel to be Kind

Destroying evil is perhaps the greatest act of kindness possible.


"Left and right, all Americans know that freedom is better that slavery, that love is better than hate, kindness better than cruelty, tolerance better than bigotry. We don't always know how we know these things, and yet mysteriously we know them nonetheless.

"The true complexity arises when we must defend these values in a world that does not universally embrace them -- when we reach the place where we must be intolerant in order to defend tolerance, or unkind in order to defend kindness, or hateful in order to defend what we love."

This is from a recent Wall Street Journal op-ed by Andrew Klavan and the point it makes is profound.

While the second paragraph highlights the issues that trouble all thinking and caring individuals, it is not a new thought. The Medrash teaches us that "Whoever is kind to the cruel will end up being cruel to the kind."

We must make distinctions. It is not all relative. All people, all situations are not the same. In our morning prayers, we thank the Almighty for giving us the ability to make these distinctions, for the understanding to distinguish between day with its unique challenges and opportunities, and night with its particular qualities.

The Havdalah prayer at the end of Shabbos is a celebration of the separation between the holy and the profane, light and darkness, Israel and the rest of the world, Shabbos and the other days of the week.

Distinctions are crucial to our understanding, a gift for which we express our gratitude. We don't say that we must be kind to all because we can't distinguish between the cruel and the kind. The late Alexander Solzhenitsyn warned of "an atmosphere of moral mediocrity, paralyzing man's noblest impulses".

We are compelled to exercise our ability to make fine distinctions and determinations. Defining what we mean by cruel and being very careful about our application of these principles requires wisdom and deliberation. One crucial point to clarify up front is that when we refer to the cruel we do NOT mean personal enemies (this is not about your annoying neighbor), but rather enemies of the Jewish people and the values we stand for.

The classic example is the story of King Saul and King Agag. Saul was ordered by none other than the Almighty Himself to kill all the citizens of the nation of Amalek. But Saul had compassion on their leader. He spared his life. And in that one extra day allotted him, Agag fathered a child who was the ancestor of one of the Jewish people's most vitriolic and hateful enemies in history, the villain of the Purim story, Haman.

This is a cautionary tale about the potentially disastrous results of misplaced compassion. Perhaps you think the world has changed, that people are different. In a modern-day example, the late Alexander Solzhenitsyn reflected in a 1978 speech at Harvard on the horrific occurrences in Cambodia : "...members of the antiwar movement wound up being involved in the betrayal of Far Eastern nations, in a genocide and in the suffering today imposed on 30 million people there. Do those convinced pacifists hear the moans coming from there? Do they understand their responsibility today? Or do they prefer not to hear?"

We don't want to be cruel, we certainly don't look for opportunities to be cruel but sometimes it is demanded of us. Sometimes (and here our ability to make crucial distinctions is put to the test) there is real evil in the world. Sometimes our lives and the lives of those we love are at stake. Sometimes our nation's existence, either spiritually or physically, is threatened. Sometimes all the values and principles we hold dear are on the line. We don't want to be cruel but sometimes there is no other option.

And perhaps, after all, cruel is the wrong word. Destroying evil is in fact not cruel, but maybe the greatest act of kindness possible.

August 10, 2008

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Visitor Comments: 14

(14) Mikhail Lyubansky, September 9, 2010 2:04 AM

Here's a response to this argument.

Here's a response to this argument. It's called "A Few Words in Favor of Compassion for the Cruel."

(13) Assistant Village Idiot, May 28, 2010 2:16 AM

Linked To This

Neo-neocon linked to this today, and I am linking to it as well after reading it. Simple eloquence. And Anonymous #8, let me be cruel to be kind. The anti-vaccination arguments are easy to refute logically. Your POV is held afloat entirely by emotion. What you teach kills children.

(12) Feigele, September 4, 2008 9:58 AM

Weakness vs. Security

As # 8 said: What does the picture have to do with the article and comments? Firstly, not giving a child vaccination is taking a huge chance that they will get worse. Is there a mother who is willing to take that chance? Secondly, about peace (weakness) and evil (cruel or security), Peace is similar to weakness. When a country like the USA is at peace for too long, it becomes so weak that it lets terrorists attack them behind their backs and as you know kill thousands of their peaceful citizens. During WWII, Jews were at peace and got killed for being weak believing in that peace. Evil is here to remind us to never linger on what is called peace but to use cruelty to defend ourselves. Of course, in a perfect world, there should be Peace not as a weakness but as an eternal happiness. But we live in a world where in order to survive we have to constantly struggle and that struggle is called evil. The day when Peace and Evil will check hands, then we will know that this is the perfect world. Until then, we have to be cruel at times and not let others do to us what happened before, as history is our witness. Only then can we have peace showing no weakness and no evil.

(11) Ray, August 18, 2008 3:30 PM

Tolerance Has Become a Four Letter Word

If the Germans had been cruel to Hitler, World War II probably would not have occurred. If the world had been cruel to Germany and Hitler in the beginning, instead of adopting a policy of appeasement, millions of lives would have been spared. At the Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem, I read a quote by a German essayist of Jewish origin. He said, "A country is not just what it does - it is also what it tolerates..." I heard a German man say, that when he was a boy, the Germans thought they were an enlightened people. He said the German people should not have put up with Hitler. Today, we have Ahmadenajad. Will the so-called "enlightened people" be able to change his mind about "wiping Israel off the earth?" With Russia helping Iran, and the rest of the world wanting to do nothing more than impose sanctions, I believe Ahmadenajad will succeed, except for the intervention of the G-D of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. By the way, the G-D of Israel is not tolerant of evil. There are consequences.

(10) William Thomas, August 14, 2008 1:23 PM

Are you saying I am evil

because I am being killed here in America, but being considered evil, seems ridiculous, how is being enlightened and praying for peace evil?

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