There’s no inherent evil attribute. Everything has utility for good, even cruelty. The reverse is also true. Everything has utility for evil, even kindness. That is to say that properly placed cruelty is kindness. Misplaced kindness is cruelty.
An example of properly placed cruelty being kindness might be a surgeon who needs to be cruel to cut someone open thereby creating a wound, putting the body into shock and causing excruciating pain. This act of cruelty is kindness because it saves the patient’s life.
Or a person needs to be cruel to kill a murderous aggressor in cold blood expiring their life and future to save others from fatality. This act of cruelty is
kindness because it saves lives.
Misplaced kindness is cruelty. For example, not operating on a patient because of concern for his trauma, pain and shock. This act of kindness is cruelty because the patient will suffer immeasurably from their internal ailment.
Or a person decides that because of kindness he will not kill a murderer in cold blood. This is an act of cruelty because his victims will die unjustly.
Therefore, kindness and cruelty need to be properly applied for them to have a utility of good.
Not only is misapplied kindness cruelty, but it also transforms the individual to be a cruel person in general.
Regarding Saul’s order to kill Nov, the city of Kohanim, and sparing Agag, the king of Amalek from execution, the Midrash Tanchuma (Metzora 1) tells us, “R’Alazar said whoever is kind to the cruel in the end will become cruel to those that are kind.”
In contrast, King David was apt in his exercise of cruelty and kindness. This aptitude was his qualification for the monarchy.
“When King David would don the attribute of ‘ruddy,’ he would fight ... and he did not withdraw his sword unused. And when he would don the attribute of ‘beautiful eyes’ he would provide for Yisrael and generously mete our acts of loving kindness” (Sha’arei Orah).
Therefore, it’s no surprise that Pinchus, in this week’s portion, is rewarded with the Covenant of Peace (Bamidbar 25:12). He was jealous on behalf of God (Ibid 11) as is described at the end of last week’s portion. Jealousy is associated with evil. As a matter of fact, Pinchas’ attribute of jealousy precipitated his application of lethal force. But as we have explained, no attribute is essentially evil. It depends on how it’s applied. In this case its
application was good.
Not only is judicious application of various attributes propitious towards others. But it is also for oneself. “A person should be cruel to their body to work hard to serve the Creator. One shouldn’t be compassionate towards the body to indulge it and follow whatever the heart desires. Rather they should be cruel to conquer their inclinations to study Torah and perform the mitzvot even if the matter is of ponderous difficulty” (Orchas Tzaddikim, Gate 8).
Today, in society, we have, to put it mildly, a vehement, robust and exuberant debate about governmental structures, legislative bodies and law enforcement.
But these issues are complex. They require careful consideration. This is because in order to be a good society our attributes of cruelty and kindness need to be exactly situated in the right place to be efficacious achievements of goodness. Life is nuanced. It’s not black and white. JN
Rabbi Yakov Bronsteyn is a senior lecturer at Phoenix Community Kollel.