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by Rabbi Yisrael Pesach Feinhandler
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Parshas Re'eh

Misplaced Mercy Can Lead to Cruelty

And there shall not cleave to your hand anything of that which has been banned; in order that the L-rd may turn from the fierceness of His anger, and grant you mercy, and have mercy upon you, and multiply you, as He has sworn to your forefathers. (DEVARIM 13:18)

Rabbi Moshe Mordechai Shulsinger told the following story. On the twenty-fifth of Tammuz, 5739 (1979) a great talmid chacham died in Bnei Brak. He came from an illustrious family, was very studious and feared Heaven.

After the shivah I met his oldest son, who taught in a yeshivah. He told me that when he and his mother went through his father's drawers, they found a note.

"What is that note?" asked the mother.

The son answered, "Twelve years ago, Father's third brother died, and Father was very worried because all three of his brothers had died at an early age. He sent me to the Steipler (Rabbi Yaakov Yisrael Kanievsky zt"l) to ask for advice and that he recommend a way to ensure a long life. The Steipler read my note and said, 'Tell your father that he should be careful every erev Rosh Chodesh to say the prayers of Yom Kippur Katan [a special set of prayers that is similar to selichos and is said only on erev Rosh Chodesh].'"

When he told this to his mother she was astonished, and said, "Now I understand. Your father never told me outright, but I noticed that he was extremely careful to say Yom Kippur Katan prayers every erev Rosh Chodesh. Even when he was in bad health, he would go to shul to pray Yom Kippur Katan with a minyan.

"But on the last Rosh Chodesh evening, which was Rosh Chodesh Tammuz, when he finished dinner at home, while he was bentching, I noticed that he was skipping Ya'aleh Veyavo of Rosh Chodesh, and began to say Uvneh Yerushalayim. I commented to him about that, and I saw his astonished reaction.

"He thought for a minute, and then said Ya'aleh Veyavo. When he finished bentching he said to me with much worry, 'I entirely forgot that today is Rosh Chodesh, and so I forgot to say the Yom Kippur Katan prayers on erev Rosh Chodesh.'

"I said to him, 'You did not skip Keriyas Shema, nor did you skip Shemoneh Esreh [meaning that saying the Yom Kippur Katan payers was not mandatory].'

"But he kept quiet and did not respond. I felt that he was very distressed and worried, but I could not understand why.

"Now I understand. This was the first erev Rosh Chodesh and the only one in the last twelve years that he had missed saying the Yom Kippur Katan prayers."

"And to our great sorrow, on the twenty-fifth of Tammuz, he passed away," the son concluded his story.

I was very curious to know what was so special about Yom Kippur Katan.

I wrote down this whole story and kept the paper in my pocket, waiting for an opportunity to show it to the Steipler and to ask him to explain it to me.

A few months later, I visited the Steipler one noon-time. It was a time of good will, and the Steipler spoke of many matters. Finally the subject turned to that family in which many brothers had died young. Then I took out the story from my pocket and showed it to the Steipler.

He read the story carefully and said, "Oh, I'm so sorry. I did not know about his death. Regarding the matter itself, I do not remember that the son was here and asked me about this. But one thing I do know, and that is that it was always known in the yeshivas in Europe that saying Yom Kippur Katan is an excellent prayer to abolish bad decrees in heaven. And since this rabbi was afraid that perhaps he was included in a bad decree, I probably told his son that he should tell his father to say Yom Kippur Katan, which helps sweeten harsh decrees.

"I know another incident where Yom Kippur Katan helped abolish a bad decree. Several years after the death of the Chazon Ish, there was a difficult period for the students of Mir who had emigrated to the United States. Several of them had died suddenly at a young age, and no one knew what to do.

"One of them wrote a letter to his friend, Rabbi Avraham Wolf, the principal of Seminar Beis Yaakov in Bnei Brak, and told him about the problem, and asked him to seek advice for them.

"If only the Chazon Ish was alive they would have been able to ask him, since asking him something was like speaking directly with the Holy Spirit. But since he was not alive, Rabbi Wolf did not know whom to ask.

"I used to daven in the Lederman shul, and I sat next to Rabbi Wolf. Many times he would speak to me about problems and show me letters he received concerning various matters, and thus it came about that he showed me this letter.

[From here we can see the Steipler's great modesty, since it is well known that Rabbi Wolf would stand in front of the Steipler with great awe and ask him everything as if he were the Urim Vetumim. Whatever the Steipler would say, Rabbi Wolf would obey strictly.

Nevertheless, here the Steipler described the incident as if it had happened only by chance.]

"I told Rabbi Wolf that in the yeshivas in Europe it was known that saying Yom Kippur Katan helps abolish bad decrees. Immediately, Rabbi Wolf telegraphed his friend in the United States and told him what had been said, since it was close to Rosh Chodesh, and they were able to organize the recitation of Yom Kippur Katan. From then on no more of that group of Mir students died young. It was an amazing thing!" (MORESHET AVOT I, p. 121)

Through the wisdom of the Steipler, the people were able to arouse G-d's mercy and to prevent more people from dying. We too must use mercy in educating our children, but we must know exactly how to use it, since it can have a negative rather than a positive effect if not employed correctly.

"And [G-d shall] grant you mercy,"(1) to you He shall grant mercy, and not to others shall He grant mercy. "...And [He shall] have mercy upon you,"(2) from here Rabban Gamliel bar Rebbi learned that as long as you have mercy on other people, you shall receive mercy from heaven. But if you do not have mercy on other people, you shall not receive mercy from heaven.

"...And multiply you,"(3) as it is written, "And I shall make your seed plentiful as the stars in heaven."(4)

"As He has sworn to your forefathers,"(5) this verse comes to teach us that all that we have is in the merit of our forefathers.

Shabbtai bar Marinus traveled to Babylonia. He tried to do business there but could not find anyone willing to deal with him. Not finding any work, he tried to get someone to support him, but could find no one to support him. He said, "The people who live here are descendants of the erev rav [foreign nations that became mixed among the Jewish people], as it is written, 'And He shall grant you mercy, and have mercy upon you.'(6) If any person has mercy on other people, this is a clear sign that he is a descendant of Avraham Avinu; but if any person does not have mercy on other people, this is a clear sign that he is not a descendant of Avraham Avinu."

It is written, "And the king called upon the Givonim, and he spoke to them, and the Givonim were not of the Jewish people."(7) David Hamelech decreed upon them that they should not be accepted among the Jewish people. David said, "There are three signs that distinguish the Jewish people: they are merciful, they have a sense of shame, and they do chesed. From where do we learn that they are merciful? It is written, 'And he shall give you mercy.'(8) From where do we learn that they have a sense of shame? It is written, 'In order that fear of Him shall be upon your face so that you shall not sin.'(9) From where do we learn that they do chesed? As it is written, 'For I have known him [Avraham] in order that he shall command his descendants after him.'(10) All those who have these three traits are worthy of clinging to the Jewish people [converting], and those who do not have these three traits are not worthy of clinging to the Jewish people." (YALKUT 889)

Why does G-d have mercy on the Jewish people in particular and not as much upon gentile nations? Why does a person who has mercy on other people receive mercy from G-d, and otherwise he does not receive mercy? From where did Rabban Gamliel derive this principle? What does the verse "And I shall make your seed plentiful"(11) add as an explanation to our verse, "and [He shall] multiply you?"(12) How can our Sages say, "all that we have is in the merit of our forefathers," when it seems that we should also have the merits of our own mitzvos?

Why did Shabbtai bar Marinus try first to do business and only afterwards to look for support? How could he accuse a whole city of not being Jewish? Why is being merciful a trait particular to the Jewish people? Why is Avraham Avinu mentioned here to represent the Jewish people? Why are the three traits of being merciful, having a sense of shame, and doing chesed specific to the Jewish people? How could the Givonim have had these traits when they had not yet converted, seeing that these traits are specific to the Jewish people?

G-d Repays Measure for Measure

...To you He shall grant mercy, and not to others...

G-d has mercy on the Jewish people more than on gentile nations because He repays us according to our actions. When we sin in a certain area, we are punished in that area. An example of this is the punishment of Shimshon, who sinned with his eyes, for he looked at gentile women and even took a gentile wife. In the end he was punished with the loss of his eyesight, when he was blinded by the cruel Pelishtim.(13)

Since the Jewish people are a nation with merciful hearts, they too receive mercy from G-d. But the gentile nations, who do not have that quality, do not receive that same mercy from G-d. Therefore it is not a matter of favoritism, but rather G-d has mercy upon us because it is appropriate to our actions.

If the gentile nations would show mercy similar to that of the Jewish people, G-d would certainly show them the same mercy that He does the Jewish people.

Another, deeper explanation might be that inherent in the mitzvah itself lies the reward. G-d created the trait of mercy in such a way that it contains within it the quality of giving back mercy to those who employ it. That is the way G-d created the world. Mercy, and other good traits, have within them some kind of "magnetic force" which attracts similar reactions.

Rabban Gamliel learned this principle from the verse which begins with the promise, "And [He shall] grant you mercy."(14) This verse is saying that He shall grant us the trait of mercy, so that we will be able to have mercy upon others. Then immediately after that the verse says, "And [He shall] have mercy upon you."(15) Thus Rabban Gamliel learned that there is a direct connection between the two concepts, which is that once you exercise the trait of mercy, which is mentioned first, you will be shown mercy by G-d.

The verse, "And I shall make your seed plentiful"(16) is added as an explanation to our verse, "And He shall multiply you."(17) The added explanation may be that although our verse does not specify what sort of plenty we shall be blessed with, yet there is the old blessing from the time of our forefathers which does specify this. There the verse says that we shall be as plentiful as the stars. Hence this also explains the plenty mentioned in parashas Re'eh.

We Owe Everything to Our Forefathers

...All that we have is in the merit of our forefathers.

How can our Sages say "all that we have is in the merit of our forefathers," when it seems that we also accumulate merits through our own mitzvos? Our Sages say that we are the orphans of orphans.(18) In other words, we are worlds away from their spiritual level. Although we may feel that we comprehend the stories that are told about them, in reality we have no idea how great our forefathers were because of our own, much lower, level. Our Sages are revealing to us that whatever spiritual level we manage to reach, however low it may be, is entirely due to the merit of our forefathers. Without their having preceded us and bequeathed to us their spiritual attainments, we would be able to achieve nothing at all.

This teaches us how elevated were our forefathers, and how humble we must be in comparison to them. Our Sages say that if the previous generations are like angels, then we are like humans; and if the previous generations are like humans then we are like donkeys.(19) That is to say, just as there is no comparison between an angel and a human, or a human and a donkey, neither is there any comparison between the previous generations and ourselves. We can only look with awe and gratitude at the great inheritance they have left us.

A Jew Is Merciful

He [Shabtai bar Marinus] said, "The people who live here are descendants of the erev rav..."

The reason Shabbtai bar Marinus tried first to do business and only afterwards did he look for support was that he did not want to be a beggar, but rather preferred to make a living from his own toil.

Since he was a merchant, he tried to make business contacts, as that is the only way to succeed in commerce. When he saw that no one was willing to lend a helping hand to get him started, he judged them favorably, thinking that they were afraid of his competition and would rather support him than suffer from his expertise, which might cause them to lose business. Thus he asked them for help, feeling that since he had no other choice, this was his only option in order to be able to sustain himself, and this is probably what the public preferred him to do. When he saw that they were not willing even to support him, he realized that simple cruelty was their problem, and they lacked the basic mercy that one Jew should feel for his fellow.

How could he accuse a whole city of not being Jewish? Perhaps Shabbtai bar Marinus felt that it could not be possible for Jews to act in the despicable way in which the people of this town acted. Jews inherit from their forefathers the trait of mercy, and to be as cruel as these people were must have meant that they were not Jewish after all. He understood that since there were foreign nations mixed within the Jewish people, these people must have been their descendants.

Another possible explanation is that, although they were Jewish, their behavior was similar to that of gentiles. Although we have within ourselves beautiful traits that we have inherited from our forefathers, nevertheless a person has free choice and can act in whatever way he chooses. These people had chosen to disregard those beautiful traits and to act as if they were gentiles.

As mentioned further on in the midrash, one of the traits particular to the Jewish people is that of being merciful. This is an inheritance that we have received without having to exert ourselves to obtain it. Many other traits take much practice to obtain, but being merciful is easy for a Jew, since our forefathers have already done the work of acquiring this trait for us. We may lose it, though, if we act with cruelty.

Avraham Was the Symbol of Mercy

If any person has mercy... this is a clear sign that he is a descendant of Avraham Avinu...
David Hamelech decreed upon them [the Givonim] that they should not be accepted among the Jewish people."

Shabbtai bar Marinus mentioned Avraham Avinu here because his mercy stood out in his many actions. For instance, he went out to save Lot despite the great odds against his success.(20) This is a clear example of feeling mercy towards others. Another example is the anguish he felt when Hagar was sent away. His trait of being merciful is also the reason Avraham was tested with the akeidah.(21) This test was especially difficult for him because he felt tremendous mercy towards others, and he was being asked to overcome this trait by slaughtering his own son. We gain this trait of mercy naturally, by being the descendants of Avraham.

The three traits of being merciful, having a sense of shame and doing chesed are specific to the Jewish people. One might think that the particular traits of the Jewish people are really their learning of Torah and keeping of the mitzvos. But the three traits mentioned represent interactions between people, and, ideally should be universal. Even the gentiles preach the desirability of having these traits. Therefore our Sages say that, although we may see examples of these traits among other nations, the only nation that really possesses them in full measure is the Jewish people.

David Hamelech knew that the Givonim had no spark of mercy in them, for if they had possessed even a small measure of mercy, their conversion would make them develop those roots. However, he knew that this was not the case, and therefore David refused to accept them as converts among the Jewish people.

Showing Mercy to Our Children Can Be Destructive

The midrash teaches us how important is the trait of showing mercy to others. However, when it comes to educating children, mercy may sometimes be destructive rather than helpful.

A parent must be careful to give his children appropriate punishments and reprimand them when necessary. If a child always receives mercy from his parents, that child will never learn from his mistakes, and he will grow up thinking that everyone will forgive him when he does anything wrong. He will ultimately learn the hard way that not everyone loves him as his parents do.

It is only natural for parents to love their children. Although love is essential for the child to develop, he also needs discipline in order to grow. He must learn that a person must do what he is told, otherwise he will have to suffer the consequences. If parents are always willing to forgive and forget, he cannot learn that lesson.

Mercy Can in Fact Be Cruelty

Misplaced mercy is actually cruelty. If a judge has "mercy" on a murderer and lets him go free, then that judge is being cruel to the public who will suffer by having a murderer roaming the streets. If on the other hand the judge acts with cruelty to the murderer, this actually means that he has mercy both on the public, since they will be safe from danger, and on the murderer himself, since he will be prevented from wrongdoing, which is ultimately the most harmful to the wrongdoer.

The same rule applies to our children. When we do not let them off scot-free every time they do something wrong, then we are really having mercy on them, since in this way they will learn how to behave correctly and this will lead them to success in life. We should never be hesitant in punishing our children where it is warranted, since over the long term we are actually doing a favor to them when we punish them.

A wise man once said, "Having children does not make a person into a parent, just as having a piano does not make a person into a pianist." Having children demands great responsibility, and parents should know how to handle that responsibility. Correcting children is an essential part of parenting, since that is how the child learns what is right and what is wrong, and we should never deprive our children of that essential lesson.

A parent can explain to his child that he does not enjoy punishing him and would rather give him a reward instead, but punishment is necessary to teach him lessons which will be valuable to him in his life.

Do Not Delay Punishment

Punishment should not be delayed. Do not tell your child, "Tomorrow I will decide what your punishment will be." If you say such a thing to your child, you are causing him unnecessary anxiety. He will be in dread the whole day imagining the awful punishment that awaits him. If he deserves a punishment, give it to him on the spot and get it over with. Waiting for punishment is the greatest torment for a child, and we do not want to make our children suffer in this way.

Emphasize to your child that the punishment is not the goal, but rather that the goal is that he understand what his parents want from him. He must understand clearly what his mistake was, otherwise there is no purpose to the punishment. If you punish a child without any explanation, the punishment is pointless, since the child will not be getting the message you wish to convey to him.

Also, be careful to keep your promises. If you have warned your child that if he comes home late, he will not go out to play, you must give him just that punishment when he comes home late, otherwise he will understand that you have lied to him. It is better not to promise punishments in advance. This way you will not be putting yourself in the position of someone who does not keep his word. Instead state your rules in such a way that the child will not dare to break them. Your facial expression and your tone of voice can say all you have to say, without your having to resort to threats.

When you threaten a punishment, your child may keep to the rules only to avoid the punishment. It is much better if he does what he has to do because he realizes that it is the right thing to do. Thus it is best to try to avoid threats, and instead explain what you expect from your child in a manner and in a tone of voice that will ensure that he will act properly.

The Peril of Spoiling a Child

Mercy can also lead to spoiling your child. Whenever he wants a new toy or new clothes, if you always comply, you are going to spoil him into thinking that he can get whatever he wants in life. This is quite dangerous.

Rabbi Simchah Zissel of Kelm was visited by a mother of one of his students who demanded that her son be given chicken every day while he was studying in his yeshivah, instead of the mediocre food served by the yeshivah. The rabbi said that he would agree on one condition: that she must guarantee that he would eat chicken every day for the rest of his life. But if she could not guarantee such a thing, he wanted him to get used to eating foods other than chicken now.

Rabbi Simchah Zissel was saying that if you spoil your child, you are only causing trouble for him. He will not always have his mother by his side to pamper him, and it will be difficult for him to adapt himself to the realities of life.

Merciful behavior is beneficial only when applied appropriately. Our children need education, and we must learn that at times, dealing harshly with them is actually the most merciful way in which we can relate to them.

1. Devarim 13:18
2. Ibid.
3. Ibid.
4. Bereshis 26:4
5. Devarim 13:18
6. Ibid.
7. Shemuel II 21:2
8. Devarim 13:18
9. Shemos 20:20
10. Bereshis 18:19
11. Devarim 13:18
12. Sotah 9b
13. Devarim 13:18
14. Ibid.
15. Bereshis 26:4
16. Devarim 13:18
17. Kesubos 106a
18. Shabbos 112b
19. Bereshis 14:14
20. Ibid., 22:1

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