Monday, March 05, 2007

The Sin of Compassion

(After all, if R' Meir Yaakov Soloveichik can entitle his article The Virtue of Hate then surely I can write about The Sin of Compassion! *smile*)

באותה שעה, אמר דוד: ג' מתנות נתן הקב"ה לישראל: רחמנין, וביישנין, וגומלי חסדים.
רחמנין? דכתיב (דברים יג): ונתן לך רחמים ורחמך והרבך.

And so the Jews were given three traits: mercy, bashfulness, and the ability to perform acts of kindness. These traits are inherent to the Jew; it is in his nature, we are informed, to be merciful and compassionate. This is even considered a gift from God.

And yet, we find that compassion is not always a good trait. There are times when characters in the Bible are rebuked for their mercy and compassion, where their compassion is regarded as a failing, a flaw, and in the worst case scenario, a sin. If it is not a sin in and of itself, it leads to sin, defiance of God in the name of mercy.

Where does this occur? How can compassion ever be considered a vice, a flaw, a failing, a sin? In the ideal world, would we not all act mercifully, with kindness and compassion toward one another? And yet the Bible tells us differently.

Consider Moses. Moses is the epitome of the empath, the one who, despite the fact that he was a prince, raised amidst grandeur and great spectacle, felt himself to be a Hebrew, enslaved as they were. Moses kills a fellow Egyptian to help a Hebrew slave, and then he is backstabbed by this very slave, according to Aggadata, for he was no other than Dasan himself. Yet more moving is the tale told of Moses' compassion upon a tiny infant, a mere baby, crushed between the bricks. Moses, astounded by the baby's fate, wishes to save him. A conversation with God ensues, in which God warns Moses that the child will grow up to be wicked. Moses, however, perhaps relying on the argument advanced by God himself in the case of Ishmael, that the child is not yet wicked, determines to save the baby. God grants his reluctant blessing upon the endeavor.

The story is footnoted in Sanhedrin 101b.

    According to legend, when the Israelites in Egypt did not complete their tale of bricks, their children were built into the walls instead. On Moses' complaining thereof to God, He answered him that he was thus weeding out the destined wicked. As proof, he was empowered to save Micah, who had already been built in, but only to become an idolater on his reaching manhood. Rashi also gives an alternative rendering: he became impoverished (Cf. Lev XXV, 25; XXVII, 8) through building — presumably his idolatrous shrine.

Moses means well and thinks to do something good, something kind. He wishes to save an innocent baby. Yet his compassion upon the infant leads to the grown man's idolatry, while some even claim this child became the person who threw the golden tablet with the words 'Arise, Ox' into the fire, causing the golden calf. Moses' compassion indirectly leads to the Golden Calf, in that case.

Moses' pupil, Joshua, follows in his footsteps. When confronted by a band of wandering, rag-tag, weary travelers, Joshua and the Jews respond by forming a covenant with them, a covenant unsanctioned by God, whose advice the people did not think to ask. Their initial mercy and compassion upon the unthreatening individuals, who so sadly proclaimed that they had been sent to ask for peace and kindness, stating that

    יב זֶה לַחְמֵנוּ, חָם הִצְטַיַּדְנוּ אֹתוֹ מִבָּתֵּינוּ, בְּיוֹם צֵאתֵנוּ, לָלֶכֶת אֲלֵיכֶם; וְעַתָּה הִנֵּה יָבֵשׁ, וְהָיָה נִקֻּדִים.
    12 This our bread we took hot for our provision out of our houses on the day we came forth to go unto you; but now, behold, it is dry, and is become crumbs.

    יג וְאֵלֶּה נֹאדוֹת הַיַּיִן אֲשֶׁר מִלֵּאנוּ חֲדָשִׁים, וְהִנֵּה הִתְבַּקָּעוּ; וְאֵלֶּה שַׂלְמוֹתֵינוּ, וּנְעָלֵינוּ, בָּלוּ, מֵרֹב הַדֶּרֶךְ מְאֹד.
    13 And these wine-skins, which we filled, were new; and, behold, they are rent. And these our garments and our shoes are worn by reason of the very long journey.'

    Joshua 9: 12

caused their downfall. While the Giveonim were not in and of themselves bad, per se, they caused many complications and problems for Israel. Their status was problematic, their trickery held against them, their positions assigned. Later on, different kings had cause to rue the day they had accepted this covenant.

The sin of compassion is demonstrated most unfortunately in the case of Saul. King Saul is told to war with the Amalekites and to kill them all, man, woman, child, cattle and sheep. Yet the verses clearly state (and here they even mention that the cause was the mistaken pity/ mercy toward the Amalekites) that:

    ט וַיַּחְמֹל שָׁאוּל וְהָעָם עַל-אֲגָג, וְעַל-מֵיטַב הַצֹּאן וְהַבָּקָר וְהַמִּשְׁנִים וְעַל-הַכָּרִים וְעַל-כָּל-הַטּוֹב, וְלֹא אָבוּ, הַחֲרִימָם; וְכָל-הַמְּלָאכָה נְמִבְזָה וְנָמֵס, אֹתָהּ הֶחֱרִימוּ. {פ}

    9 But Saul and the people spared Agag, and the best of the sheep, and of the oxen, even the young of the second birth, and the lambs, and all that was good, and would not utterly destroy them; but every thing that was of no account and feeble, that they destroyed utterly. {P}

    Samuel I 15: 9

The word "vayachamol," here translated as "spared," can also be interepreted as "had pity upon." Saul and his people had pity upon the seemingly weak, unthreatening Agag and the remnants of his destroyed people.

Because of this, Saul loses his kingdom, is severely punished because of his streak of kindness and compassion. This seems wholly unfair.

The rule on a whole is perhaps best illustrated in one of the Tales of King Solomon.

    The Man and the Snake

    A Man, who was carrying a vessel full of milk, in a field campe upon a Snake which was crying out piteously. When he asked her why she so cried out she replied, 'I am consumed with a burning thirst. What hast thou there?' He answered, 'Milk.' The Snake said, 'Give me to drink, and in return I will show thee a great treasure.' As soon as she had drunk her fill, she led him to a place where a large stone lay, and when he had rolled this on one side he uncovered a great treasure, which he seized. Immediately she sprang upon him, and coiled herself around his neck. He asked, 'What does this mean?' She replied, 'I will slay thee, because thou has stolen all my gold!' The man said, 'Let us go before King Solomon, and he will speedily show which of us is in the right.' And the Snake was content.

    When they came before Solomon's judgement-seat the Man accused the Snake. But she defended herself, saying, 'I will kill him, for it is written, And thou shalt bruise the heel of the man.

    "Thou art quite right," said the King, "but first of all release thy hold of the man. You are both now standing before the judge, and before judgement has been given none of the litigants should hold fast the other party and thus enjoy an advantage."

    The snake obeyed, released its hold upon the man, and uncoiling itself from the man's neck, glided down.

    Thereupon King Solomon said unto the snake, "Now explain thy case and what it is thou dost want of the man." The snake repeated its words, "I want to kill this man because Scripture commands me to do it."

    Thereupon Solomon turned to the man and said, "And thou, too, the Lord commanded to 'bruise the head of the snake; why dost thou not do it? The man immediately raised his foot and crushed the snake's head.'

    ~Google Print on Tales from King Solomon

This story holds the answer to our confused question- why is compassion wrong? As the story avows, compassion is not wrong on a whole. The only time compassion is wrong is when it directly contradicts a directive of God, or where one has not bothered to consult God. In the case of Saul, this is made very clear when Samuel states:

    כב וַיֹּאמֶר שְׁמוּאֵל, הַחֵפֶץ לַיהוָה בְּעֹלוֹת וּזְבָחִים, כִּשְׁמֹעַ, בְּקוֹל יְהוָה: הִנֵּה שְׁמֹעַ מִזֶּבַח טוֹב, לְהַקְשִׁיב מֵחֵלֶב אֵילִים.

    22 And Samuel said: 'Hath the LORD as great delight in burnt-offerings and sacrifices, as in hearkening to the voice of the LORD? Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to hearken than the fat of rams.

    כג כִּי חַטַּאת-קֶסֶם מֶרִי, וְאָוֶן וּתְרָפִים הַפְצַר: יַעַן, מָאַסְתָּ אֶת-דְּבַר יְהוָה, וַיִּמְאָסְךָ, מִמֶּלֶךְ. {ס}

    23 For rebellion is as the sin of witchcraft, and stubbornness is as idolatry and teraphim. Because thou hast rejected the word of the LORD, He hath also rejected thee from being king.' {S}

Obedience to God overrides the inherent desire and will to act compassionately toward man. The same is true in the case of Moses and Micha; God explains to Moses that Micha is one of the wicked, but Moses refuses to believe it. God allows Moses to save Micha as an experiment; obviously this works out disastrously.

The Giveonim, I believe, are a lesser case because the Jews are not going against an explicit command of God so much as not inquiring as to His Will. This is why the Giveonim are still accepted into the Jewish people, albeit retaining a lesser status. There is no rebellion involved here, merely oversight.

The man in Tales of King Solomon decided to override the directive of God that states that there is eternal enmity between mankind and the serpent.

    טו וְאֵיבָה אָשִׁית, בֵּינְךָ וּבֵין הָאִשָּׁה, וּבֵין זַרְעֲךָ, וּבֵין זַרְעָהּ: הוּא יְשׁוּפְךָ רֹאשׁ, וְאַתָּה תְּשׁוּפֶנּוּ עָקֵב. {ס}

    15 And I will put enmity between thee and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed; they shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt bruise their heel.' {S}

This man attempted to act peacefully toward the snake, disregarding the statement that claims that he is to "bruise" the snake's head. He learned his error, to his cost. His compassion was misguided because it conflicted with God's absolute directive or command.

I would suggest, then, that the sin of compassion (or the fact that compassion leads to error or sin) is based only in particulars. If one is explicitly commanded something and one chooses to ignore it in favor of mercy or compassion, one is held accountable and guilty, for man must obey his Creator. The grand majority of the time, however, compassion and mercy are wonderful qualities that we should strive to attain.

This was Saul's flaw, then. His compassion in the face of God's absolute directive was considered wrong, a form of rebellion and a sin. However, the rest of the time he is supposed to be compassionate, which is why he is still held accountable for his actions at Nov toward the priests.

This resolves the seeming contradiction that would arise otherwise- for otherwise, how could Saul possibly be rebuked for lack of compassion at Nov when killing the Kohanim and then told his compassion upon Amalek was flawed? The answer lies within the idea of command; when God commands, one cannot choose to be kind, even if one would wish to do so. When God commands, men become soldiers underneath their General's command. They cannot question orders. Most literally, this occurs by Avshalom. King David, exercising fault judgment, would have allowed his rebellious son to live, even though this would constitute a threat to him. Joab was the merciless general who ordered the execution, and in terms of tactical strategy, it was the right command.

There is a time for all things. And sometimes the time demands the obedient man, even when the orders require him to be both merciless and ruthless, even when these qualities and traits go against his very nature.

Perhaps humanity is preserved in our very desire to question the orders. We do not want to kill out all of Amalek. We do not want to sentence a baby to death, crushed between the bricks. The fact that we do not want to evidences our humanity. The fact that we do it anyway is our sacrifice to God. Abraham offered up his son, but the sacrifice was not necessarily fulfilled. In following God's orders, in killing the Amalekites or refusing to aid the snake, we sacrifice a part of our soul, dying a little bit each time we must act so contrary to our own nature.

But because we believe in the greater whole, and God's greatness, we must accede.

This is probably the hardest thing anyone could ever be asked to do, as I think it is inherent to man to hate the idea of submission, obedience or any kind of yoke. This is especially stressed in modern man's approach to life. And so I do not like those who dismiss Saul and claim that he was foolish to have disobeyed God. He was following his conscience, which is generally a very noble thing to do. The only problem was, this was the time of sacrifice.


M.R. said...

Bravo, Chana! Do you have a publisher yet?

In most of your examples, not only would compassion be a sin, but a bit of hindsight lets us see why the "compassionate" act was not so compassionate after all.

Baby Micha is saved and becomes the means through which the Jews make the Golden Calf, which has repercussions to this day.

Shaul saves Aggag, who fathers Haman's ancestor, nearly letting Haman wipe out the entire Jewish people.

It sounds a whole lot like what Yonah was trying to avoid; he tried let a city be wiped out, so in the future it would not destroy a kingdom. But as you pointed out--it ain't the compassion, net or gross, that matters. It's G-d's orders.

Tobie said...

I'm not entirely sure that compassion is the correct translation of "חמלה", particularly in the case of Shaul. After all, he didn't have חמלה on the women, nor on children or little babies. They had חמלה on the nicest of the sheep and cattle, and on a king that they could take home in a victory parade. חמלה seems to be more "shame to waste this" than compassion, although to test it, I would have to look through the rest of Tanach.

dbs said...

One thing which I do agree with is that ‘compassion’ is not always appropriate. Or, perhaps more accurately, it is okay to feel compassion, but it doesn’t always dictate the course of action.

But I have a very difficult time with your conclusion, which to me is one of the most disturbing thing about the idea of religious fundamentalism. Our idea of what God has commanded us is greatly shaped by how we were raised and educated. The same people who would argue for killing Amalek would be advocating jihad had they been raised as Moslems. Personally, I can not conceive of a God who would want his creations to blindly follow a patently immoral action simply because they think that it is God’s will. And I think that all of the convoluted rationales for subjugating our innate sense of good for that of a higher morality are hollow entirely unconvincing.

Also, by the way, I think that you can hold on to your own sense of moral prerogative without throwing away the entire mesorah.

(btw, I think that ‘chemlah’ is best translated as ‘mercy’, which has a slightly different nuance.)