"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.