Wise and Unwise Compassion in Zion

Dear Friends,


The Prophets of Israel were known for their universal compassion. One of the Prophets of Israel was King David, as the Talmud states in the name of Rav Huna that David was one of the early prophets when our people lived in the Land of Zion (Sota 48b). David lived during an era when most of the peoples of the earth worshiped the powerful forces within nature; moreover, the kings were often viewed as powerful gods with the right to exploit their people. In addition, each pagan nation felt that it had its own national god, and the fights among the nations were viewed as the fights between competing gods. (For an example, see Isaiah 37:10-12.)


In David’s era, most human beings had lost the awareness of Hashem, the Compassionate and Life-Giving One Who created the universe. They also lost the awareness that they were created in the Divine image with the capacity to serve the compassionate and life-giving purpose of Hashem. David, in his role as a prophet, was concerned about their spiritual welfare, and he proclaimed to the rulers of the peoples:


“And now, O kings, be wise; be disciplined O judges of the earth. Serve Hashem with awe, and rejoice with trembling.” (Psalm 2:10, 11)


Rashi, in his commentary on the above message of David, writes:


“The Prophets of Israel are people of compassion; thus, they admonish the nations of the world to forsake their evil ways, for the Holy One, Blessed be He, extends His hand to both the wicked and the righteous.”


Rashi’s explanation is based on a teaching of our sages in Midrash Tanchuma (Balak 1). In this midrashic teaching, the sages point out that the Prophets of Israel had the following distinguishing characteristic: They were concerned about the spiritual welfare of the world’s nations, and they would therefore warn the nations about their faults. The sages cite the following Divine statement to the Prophet Jeremiah as an example of the universal role of Israel’s prophets:


 “I have appointed you as a prophet to the nations” (Jeremiah 1:5).


In Midrash Tanchuma (Balak 1), the sages also point out another distinguishing characteristic of the Prophets of Israel: They had the ability to feel compassion for the suffering of other nations. As an example of this universal compassion, the sages refer to the attitude of the Prophet Isaiah when he prophesied about the future suffering of Moab, a traditional enemy of Israel that would eventually experience calamities as a result of its corrupt and cruel behavior. The sages say:


“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’ (Isaiah 16:11).”


There is, however, a story within our Sacred Scriptures which reveals that compassion, when used unwisely, can be dangerous. Within this story, we find a description 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 tyrant who had previously attacked Israel. The war went on for six days, and on the seventh day Israel had a miraculous victory, despite their small numbers, as it is written:


“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 kind kings; let us 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 of Ben-Hadad then went to appeal to King Ahab:


They came to the king of Israel and said: “Your servant Ben-Hadad said, ‘Please let me live!’ ” He (Ahab) said, “Is he still alive? He is my brother!” (Verse 32)


Ben-Hadad then came to Ahab, and he gave Ahab the following promises: “The cities that my father took from your father, I shall return; and you may control markets in Damascus, just as my father did in Samaria.” (Verse 34)


Ahab agreed, and he said to Ben-Hadad, “And with this covenant I shall send you off” (ibid). And it is written, “So he sealed a covenant with him and sent him off” (ibid).


Ahab was later confronted by a prophet of Hashem who rebuked him for this gesture of compassion! The prophet said to him the following words in the Name of Hashem: “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 the prophet’s rebuke?  The Prophets of Israel are known for their universal compassion, and Isaiah even expressed compassion for the suffering of Moab, a traditional enemy of Israel. Why, then, was this prophet given a Divine assignment to rebuke Ahab for having compassion on Ben-Hadad? The commentator, Radak, explains that, in this particular situation, Ahab’s compassion was misplaced, for he should have understood that Hashem did not want this sinister and wicked king to go free. As Radak writes:


“Compassion on the wicked is actually cruelty, for it is known that in the end, they will make war.” (Commentary on verse 35)


Three years later, there was another war with Aram over a captured city of Israel that Ben Hadad failed to return. Ben Hadad told his chariot commanders that their first priority was to kill Ahab, the King of Israel. Ahab was killed during the battle; thus, the earlier prophecy about his death was fulfilled. (Ibid 22:31-38)


The message of the above story is expressed in the following Jewish saying:


“Whoever is compassionate to the cruel will in the end be cruel to the compassionate.” (Based on Midrash Rabbah on Ecclesiastes 7:16)


Through his act of compassion to the cruel tyrant of Aram, Ahab ended up being cruel to his compassionate people and to his own self.


In general, Ahab was a wicked king, as our Sacred Scriptures record that Ahab, through the incitement of his wife, Jezebel, rejected the path of Hashem. Although the miraculous victory over Aram gave him a new opportunity to repent, he continued, through the encouragement of Jezebel, to reject the Divine path. (See 1 Kings, chapter 21)


The following teachings can give us a better understanding of two of Ahab’s failures – his failure to recognize the danger in letting Ben-Hadad go, and his failure to recognize the spiritual significance of the war with Aram:


A major theme of our Sacred Scriptures is expressed in the following Divine statement:


“If only My people would heed Me, if Israel would walk in My ways. I would immediately subdue their enemies, and turn My hand against their tormentors.” (Psalm 81:14, 15)


The Prophets of Israel stressed this Divine message; thus, when enemies would invade the Land of Zion, the prophets would remind our people that the invasion is a Divine wake-up call to return to the path of the Torah, the Divine Teaching. This is because the Land of Zion was given to us for the fulfillment of the Torah. This sacred purpose of the Land was revealed to us by Moshe, who proclaimed to our people before we entered the Land:


“See! I have taught you statutes and social laws, as Hashem, my God, has commanded me, to do so in the midst of the Land to which you come, to possess it.” (Deuteronomy 4:5)


When Moshe urged our people to choose the Divine Teaching, he proclaimed:


“Choose life, so that you may live, you and your descendants – to love Hashem, your God, to listen to His voice and to cleave to Him, for He is your life and the length of your days, to dwell upon the Land that Hashem swore to your forefathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, to give them.” (Deuteronomy 30:19, 20)  


A wake-up call in the Land of Zion is therefore meant to inspire us to return to the life-giving Divine Teaching. The ultimate goal of all Divine wake-up calls is life; thus, during periods of danger, we must be careful to avoid naive or reckless behavior which further endangers life. Ahab failed to understand this message, as he endangered himself and his people through his naive compassion. In addition, he continued to reject the life-giving Divine Teaching.


The following insight of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch can deepen our understanding of the above teachings regarding compassion. According to Rabbi Hirsch, 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. But when an act motivated by compassion leads to death and destruction, then it is not true compassion; it does not serve the purpose of Hashem, the Compassionate and Life-Giving One.


Have a Good and Strengthening Shabbos,

Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen

Hazon - Our Universal Vision