Parsha Vayeitzei 5771: Yaakov, Lavan and Practical Applications of Compassion and Cruelty L’Shem Shemayim

by Moshe Burt

In last week’s Parsha Toldos, we learned about Rivka, who rose above an evil environment while internalizing it’s insights and was thus well positioned to urge Yaakov to claim the Bracha, and about Yaakov, the “Ish Tam”. We learn that Yaakov was “totally honest, a man of great integrity” but was also master over the trait of being “tam”, a “‘plain man’, … without trickery. This means that Yaakov did not allow this “Ish Tam” character trait to dominate him. He knew when and where to act otherwise. We knew that from his demand for the birthright from Eisev in exchange for the lentil soup. These traits surely seemed inculcated to Yaakov as a result of Rivka Imeinu’s nurturing. We later learned that Yaakov told Rachel; “‘…that he was her father’s kinsman’, according to the Sages, ‘If he has come to be sly, I am his kinsman in being sly.'” (Rashi on Breish’t Perek 29, posuk 12)

The Hozeh of Lublin quotes the Sages saying;

“Whoever is compassionate where he should be cruel will eventually be cruel where should be compassionate.” He continued by saying that “a person needs to be master over all of his traits. If he fails to apply so-called negative traits in their proper times, he will end up applying them when it is wrong to do so.” “A person needs to know how to act in different circumstances, sometimes one way to further the will of Hashem and other times the exact opposite way for the same end.” (“Growth Through Torah” by Rabbi Zelig Pliskin on Parsha Toldos, pages 62-63, “Torah Gems” by Aharon Yaakov Greenberg, on Parsha Toldos, page 203)

And so in recent times, again and again we see this Talmudic adage played out; “Whoever is compassionate where he should be cruel will eventually be cruel where should be compassionate.” One such example, amongst countless many which could be cited; a few years ago the government of Israel once called off a military action in Gaza due to human shields while the children of Sderot cowered in fear, either with their heads beneath their hands in a fetal-like position on the floor or under their concrete desks, because Sderot’s lack of affluence makes them low-priority citizens vs their more upscale, affluent Kfar Saba and Petah Tikva counterparts.

In another example of mis-guided, distorted morality, defense minister Ehud Barak applied laughable on-again, off-again passage of supplies through Egypt/Gaza and Israel/Gaza checkpoints as well as the limited on-off switch for Israeli utilities in Gaza, to Israel’s Islamic adversaries, to the same terrorists who continued hiding behind human shields before, during and after Operation Castlead. These utility cut-off sanctions are thus calibrated so as to fall under the radar of former state attorney general Mazuz who at one point ordered the sanctions suspended saying, “it may lead to the deaths of soldiers and civilians.” To this, The Rabbinical Council of Judea, Samaria and Gaza responded;

Jewish law allows for siege measures that would harm the population of the enemy entity in Gaza, “because, according to the definition used in Jewish law, the daily Kassam rocket barrages on the precious residents of the south constitute war in every respect.” (degraded link)

To repeat the quote from the Hozeh of Lublin; “Whoever is compassionate where he should be cruel will eventually be cruel where should be compassionate” and that “a person needs to be master over all of his traits… to know how to act in different circumstances, sometimes one way to further the will of Hashem and other times the exact opposite way for the same end.”

Where has the righteous indignation of the people gone against successive regimes merciful to the cruel and cruel to the merciful — to the Jews? This axiom surely applies to us — the Jews, even more so than to successive cruel, callous, heartless, vicious, mean-spirited regimes ruling medinat Yisrael. Where is the Jewish outcry to Shemayim at the regime’s Yassamnik and IDF wanton pogrom and destruction of the Federman-Tor Farm, the evictions of 25 Jewish families from the Jewish-owned militarily-strategic Beit HaShalom between Hevron and Kiryat Arba and numerous small settlements and outposts on Jewish land trashed and destroyed by both the Olmert and Bibi-Barak regimes?

So, we learn about Lavan who ran to greet Yaakov, hugging and kissing him and bringing him to his house. We see that while Lavan appeared extremely loving and warm, he was not acting out of brotherly, familial love when embracing Yaakov. The fact was that the knivving Lavan, expecting a rerun of the gifts showered upon his family by Eliezer when he came to acquire Rifka as Yitzchak’s Shidduch, instead saw an empty-handed Yaakov and subjected him to a full-body grope searching for goodies. Maybe there was gold under them thare garments, or maybe Yaakov was hiding diamonds in his mouth.

Rav Pliskin in “Growth Through Torah” expresses the importance of judging people favorably. But he then goes on to quote Rabbi Yeruchem Levovitz who says that “if someone is an evil person we are obligated to judge him unfavorably. Some people may find this rather harsh, but that is the reality: with evil people assume the worst. (Rabbi Yeruchem Levovitz; Daas Torah: Breish’t, Pge. 192)”

Rav Pliskin continues that:

“We need to master the ability of seeing the good in the bad and the bad in the good. Then we need to know when to use each ability. Judging an evil person on the side of merit is not a virtue but a fault. Failure to be on guard to protect yourself from a deceitful person can cause you and others much damage and heartache. … The way of the Torah is to use wisdom to know when to assume negative motivations and when to judge others favorably.”

While Rav Pliskin says that it’s unfortunate:

“…That many people fail to judge others favorably when they really should”, he also says that the opposite, the tendency “…of believing everyone is considered … to be the attribute of a fool.” (Growth Through Torah, Rabbi Zelig Pliskin, Parsha Vayeitzei, pages 75-76)

And so, it seems that there is this attribute judging and distinguishing the “good in the bad” favorably and the “bad in the good” negatively. This attribute would seem to go hand-in-hand with applying one’s own positive and negative attributes at the appropriate times, i.e., compassion to the compassionate and cruelty to the evil. The attribute of distinguishing good from evil, when to be compassionate and when cruelty is necessary, is to understand the impact of the message; compassion or cruelty.

Therein liesthe meaning of a credible deterrent capability on a national level.

We still await in our time, the “Ish Tam”, the “totally honest … man of great integrity”, the master over the trait of being “tam”, the “‘plain man’, … without trickery”, who “knew when and where to act otherwise” but who did not allow this “Ish Tam” character trait to dominate him. Is he around the corner? Do we know him? Will he come in our lifetime?

May our actions regarding our fellow Jews merit acquiring such Divine wisdom as necessary to humble the evil-doers.

May we, the B’nai Yisrael be zocha that our brethren — the refugee families from Gush Katif be permanently settled and be made totally whole, that our dear brother Jonathan Pollard, captive Gilad Shalit and the other MIAs be liberated alive and returned to us in ways befitting Al Kiddush Hashem. May we have the courage to stand up as one to prevent the possibility of Chas V’Challila any future eviction of Jews from their homes and the handing of Jewish land over to enemies sworn to Israel’s and Judaism’s destruction and eradication. May we fulfill Hashem’s blueprint of B’nai Yisrael as a Unique people — an Am Segula, not to be reckoned with as with “the nations” and may we be zocha to see the Moshiach, the Ge’ula Shlaima, as Dov Shurin sings; “Ki Karov Yom Hashem, Yom Hashem V’Kol HaGoyim”, the Ultimate Redemption, bim hay v’yameinu — speedily, in our time”, — Achshav, Chik Chuk, Miyad, Etmol!!!

Good Shabbos!
Moshe Burt, an Oleh, is a commentator on news and events in Israel and Founder and Director of The Sefer Torah Recycling Network. He lives in Ramat Beit Shemesh.