What Does “He Who Is Compassionate To The Cruel Will Be Cruel To The Compassionate” Mean?

Dear jew in the City,

What is the source and meaning for “he who is compassionate to the cruel will be cruel to the compassionate?”



Dear Joseph,
Thanks for your question. Are you familiar with Godwin’s law? Godwin’s law is an internet principle which states that as an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Hitler approaches one (i.e., a certainty). I’m going to make Godwin proud and play the Hitler card in the very first paragraph.

Hitler is known for his cruelty to humans – not just Jews, but Romani, the disabled, trade unionists, Freemasons, and many others. He is also known – lesser known to be sure, but known nonetheless – as an animal rights activist. For one thing, he was a vegetarian. (Some readers may try to “correct” me that he became a vegetarian in 1938 for health reasons. This is true. But by 1942, he was encouraging others to adopt a vegetarian lifestyle for humanitarian reasons.) Similarly, upon coming to power in 1933, he passed strict animal-protection laws. These limited the use of animals in medical research and enforced what they considered to be humane methods of butchering animals for food.

Here’s another, albeit far less grievous, example: In 2003, PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) sent an open letter to Yasser Arafat complaining about a donkey that was killed carrying explosives from Gaza into Israel. The Washington Post asked Ingrid Newkirk, president of PETA and author of the letter, why she didn’t ask Arafat to stop the terror attacks, which killed 729 Israelis between 2000 and 2003. Newkirk’s response was, “It’s not my business to inject myself into human wars.” A lot of people found Newkirk’s priorities (if not PETA’s) to be somewhat askew.

I’m not trying to pick on vegetarians or animal-rights advocates in general. It’s just that as examples go, these are what we call “low-hanging fruit.” The question is: how could Hitler be so cruel in one way and so compassionate in another? Or, how could Newkirk be so compassionate in one way and so indifferent in another? (Appalling though I find her attitude, I stop short of calling her response “cruel.” Sorry, Godwin, but I simply don’t equate Newkirk with Hitler!)

The reality is that we have a moral thermostat that ranges from “compassionate” to “cruel.” Let’s call it the compassiostat.* The compassiostat has to be adjusted appropriately based on the circumstances. If you turn it way up when it should be turned down, or way down when it should be turned up, you’re going to break it. And the compassiostat breaks surprisingly easily. 

Unfortunately, we’re seeing a lot of broken compassiostats these days, with people justifying that babies are colonizers and rape is a legitimate form of protest. People are siding with the terrorists in surprisingly large numbers and celebrating the deaths of innocent non-combatants.

While it’s not the source of the statement “one who is compassionate to the cruel will ultimately be cruel to the compassionate,” the principles can be found in the Torah itself. You may be aware that there’s a mitzvah to save others who may be endangered (Leviticus 19:16). Well, there’s a certain type of sinner called a “meisis,” which is someone who tries to lure other Jews into idolatry. Regarding such a person, the Torah says, “your eye shall not have pity on him” (Deuteronomy 13:9). If we see a meisis in trouble – even in mortal peril – we’re not allowed to help him. Our baseline practice is to be compassionate, but this person, whose actions undermine society, has forfeited the right to compassion.

Similarly, there’s a mitzvah (Deuteronomy chapter 13) to destroy a city in Israel that has turned to idolatry. (As with the ben sorer u’moreh – the stubborn and rebellious son, the Talmud [Sanhedrin 71a] tells us that there never was such a city that needed to be destroyed; the section was taught strictly for the lessons it imparts.) 

Now, destroying an entire city is not something that a normal person wants to do, and a normal person might be concerned that participating in such an activity might break his compassiostat. To allay this concern, verse 13:18 tells us that in reward for fulfilling this mitzvah, God will “give you mercy and be merciful to you.” Not only will God be merciful to you, He’ll give you mercy! In other words, He’ll re-set your compassiostat.

As far as the actual dictum that “one who is compassionate to the cruel will ultimately be cruel to the compassionate,” that can be found in various midrashim, including the Midrash Tanchuma and the Yalkut Shimoni. It’s based on two incidents involving King Saul.

In I Samuel 15, Saul kept King Agag of Amalek alive despite God’s command to execute him. (You may be aware that Agag had a conjugal visit while in captivity and ultimately sired Haman, who nearly eradicated the entire Jewish nation.) Later, in I Samuel 22, Saul ordered the destruction of Nov, a city of kohanim, for harboring the fugitive David. (The residents of Nov didn’t even think they were doing anything wrong. Since David was Saul’s son-in-law, they thought that they were doing Saul a favor by extending hospitality to him!)

Saul had a broken compassiostat. He thought it was appropriate to extend mercy to a condemned enemy who had antagonized the nation, but he justified executing innocents who quite inadvertently found themselves on the wrong side of Saul’s misguided personal crusade.

Finally, consider Exodus chapter 21. Verse 13 tells us that if someone kills another person by accident, God will designate a place where the manslaughterer can flee. (The details are given later in the Torah.) But if someone kills on purpose, these cities of refuge are ineffective. Even the Temple itself won’t provide sanctuary for a full-fledged murderer! There’s a time to be compassionate and a time to act harshly. Letting a murderer walk around isn’t being merciful, it’s being stupid.

Let us conclude with the recitation of Nick Lowe’s 1979 hit Cruel to Be Kind:

You’ve gotta be cruel to be kind, in the right measure
Cruel to be kind, it’s a very good sign
Cruel to be kind, means that I love you
Baby, you gotta be cruel to be kind.

You can’t be kind all the time because sometimes it’s misguided and you’ll break your compassiostat. If that happens, you’ll end up being cruel to all the wrong people. You’ve got to be cruel when necessary if you want to keep being kind the rest of the time. In other words, “you gotta be cruel to be kind”.

Rabbi Jack Abramowitz
Educational Correspondent
Follow Ask Rabbi Jack on YouTube

*I googled this word and got zero result so, as far as I know, I coined it! 

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  • Avatar photo Jimoh Samuel says on May 4, 2024

    He who is compassionate to the cruel will be cruel to the compassionate


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