Wise and Unwise Compassion

In this letter, we will discuss how the universal vision of Israel’s Prophets caused them to have compassion for other nations, and we will also discuss how this same vision made the Prophets aware that there are some expressions of compassion which are unwise and dangerous:


Dear Friends,


The pagan nations viewed the world as an arena of competing gods, and each nation worshiped its own god. For example, the pagan king of Assyria had conquered many nations, and when he arrived with his vast army at the walls of Jerusalem, he sent a messenger to proclaim to Hezekiah, King of Judah, that the God whom Judah served would not be able to save them, for Assyria had defeated the gods of the other nations. As the messenger proclaimed to King Hezekiah, “Did the gods of the nations rescue those whom my fathers destroyed?” (Isaiah 37:12). Instead of responding to this mocking message, King Hezekiah prayed:


“O Compassionate One, God of all the hosts of creation, God of Israel, Who dwells atop the Cherubim: You alone are God of all the kingdoms of the world; You made heaven and earth.” (Isaiah 37:16).


This universal prayer of Hezekiah was in the spirit of the Prophets of Israel who stressed the unifying teaching that all life comes from the Compassionate One. As the Prophet Isaiah proclaimed:


“Thus said God, the Compassionate One, Who created the heavens and stretched them forth; Who firmed the earth and its produce, Who gave a soul to the people upon it, and a spirit to those who walk on it.” (Isaiah 42:5)


As we have discussed in this series, the Prophets of Israel proclaimed a Divine vision of universal enlightenment and shalom for all the nations. Someone who “truly” believes in this universal Divine vision will develop universal compassion; thus, our sages say that it was the ability to feel compassion for other nations which distinguished the Prophets of Israel from the prophets of the pagan nations in that era of history. The prophets of the pagan nations did not have this universal compassion, and our sages cite the Prophet Balaam as an example, for he - at the request of the King of Moab - came to put a curse of destruction upon our ancestors after they left the land of Egypt, even though they were not threatening Moab or Balaam's land in any way. After our ancestors entered the Promised Land, Moab remained an enemy of Israel; however, when Divine justice later caused the nation of Moab to experience the painful consequences of its behavior, the Prophet Isaiah expressed words of compassion for this nation. A source for these teachings is found in the following Midrash:


“All the Prophets of Israel were inspired by the attribute of compassion towards both Israel and the nations, as Isaiah states: ‘Therefore my insides moan like a harp for Moab’ (16:11), and it is written in the Book of Ezekiel: ‘Take up a lamentation for Tyre’ (27:2). The prophets of the nations of the world, however, were motivated by cruelty; for this one (Balaam) designed to exterminate an entire nation for no reason at all.” (Midrash Tachumah, Balak 1)


There is a story within our Sacred Scriptures which offers us another perspective, as it reveals that there are naïve and foolish expressions of compassion which can cause great harm. This story tells of a fierce battle between the small army of Israel, led by King Ahab, and a huge invading army from Aram, led by King Ben-Hadad - a cruel ruler who had previously attacked Israel. The war went on for six days, and on the seventh day Israel achieved a miraculous victory, despite their small numbers:


“It happened on the seventh day that the battle was joined, and the Children of Israel struck down Aram - a hundred thousand foot soldiers in one day...Ben-Hadad fled, and entered into the city, hiding in an inner chamber. His servants said to him, ‘Behold, we have heard that the kings of the House of Israel are kings who do acts of lovingkindness; let us therefore put sackcloth on our loins and ropes upon our heads and go forth to the king of Israel - perhaps he will let you live.’ ” (1 Kings 20:29-31).


 The servants then made the following appeal to King Ahab:


“So they girded their loins with sackcloth and put ropes upon their heads, and they came to the king of Israel and said, ‘Your servant Ben-Hadad said: Please let me live!’ Ahab said, ‘Is he still alive? He is my brother!’ ” (Ibid. verse 32)


The Book of Kings records that Ahab made a peace treaty with Ben Hadad, who made a number of peaceful promises to the king of Israel. As a result, Ahab allowed him to return to his land. Ahab was later confronted by a prophet of God who rebuked him for this gesture of mercy! The prophet then said to him the following words in the name of Hashem - the Compassionate One: “Because you sent forth from your hand the man whom I had condemned to destruction, your life shall be in place of his life” (verse 42).


How are we to understand this condemnation of Ahab? Aren't the Prophets of Israel known for their compassion? Shouldn't the prophet have therefore praised Ahab for continuing this tradition of compassion, instead of rebuking him? According to the classical commentator, the Radak, Ahab's compassion caused him to ignore the reality that this king was a sinister and evil ruler who was planning to attack Israel again. The Radak adds: “Compassion on the wicked is actually cruelty, for it is known that in the end, they will make war.” In fact, in this case, Ben-Hadad later attacked Israel again, and King Ahab was killed during the battle! Another classical commentator, Rashi, cites a tradition that the prophet had previously given Ahab a specific Divine message that this dangerous ruler should not be spared, but Ahab’s misplaced compassion caused him to ignore the message.


Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch has an insight concerning the Hebrew word for “compassion” which can deepen our understanding of the prophet's rebuke. Rabbi Hirsch states that the Hebrew word for compassion – “rachamim” - comes from the word “rechem” - womb (Commentary to Genesis 43:14). Just as the womb was created to nurture and develop life, so too the purpose of compassion is to nurture and develop life. When an act motivated by compassion, however, leads to death and destruction, then it is not true compassion; it does not serve the life-affirming purpose of the Compassionate One.


There is an ancient Jewish saying that “whoever is compassionate to the cruel will in the end be cruel to the compassionate” (see Midrash Rabbah on Ecclesiastes 7:16).  History has taught us this sad lesson. For example, there were pacifists who opposed any military action against Nazi Germany, even as this nation began conquering other nations and even after this nation began a program of genocide. These pacifists believed that peace at any price is the compassionate way. In the end, it became clear that their compassion for evil murderers was a form of cruelty to the victims.


Both the Torah and history are teaching us that compassion must be expressed in a wise and life-affirming way. The Creator wants us to combine the compassion of our hearts with the wisdom of our minds so that all our deeds will lead to life and true shalom.


May we indeed be blessed with true shalom!

Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen


Hazon - Our Universal Vision