What Torah teaches about being cruel to be kind

By Rabbi Leonard Rosenthal

Rabbi Leonard Rosenthal

SAN DIEGO — In 1979 pop singer Nick Lowe put out a single that became a classic: “Cruel to be Kind”:

Oh I can’t take another heartache
Though you say you’re my friend, I’m at my wit’s end
You say your love is bonafide, but that don’t coincide
With the things that you do
And when I ask you to be nice, you say

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’ve gotta be cruel)
You gotta be cruel to be kind

“Cruel to be Kind’s” lyrics are fairly enigmatic. According to Dictionary.com: “To be ‘cruel to be kind’ is to cause someone pain for his or her own good. The phrase is used by Hamlet after he has berated his mother for her infidelity to the memory of her deceased husband.”

According to Rabbi Yitzchak Blazer of St. Petersburg, sometimes it is permissible to be “cruel to be kind.” There are times when compassion must be expressed through impatience and anger, and when cruelty is expressed though silence.

When a compassionate person sees someone hurting or abusing his or her neighbor and they rise in righteous indignation and shout out for them to stop, they are using what is usually a negative (impatience and anger) to try to do something positive. A cruel person, however, may show calmness when they ignore evil and walk away, but they are in reality condoning cruelty.

In parashat Mishpatim, laws are given putting limits on collateral taken in exchange for loans: “If you lend money to My people, to the poor among you, do not act toward them as a creditor; exact no interest from them. If you take your neighbor’s garment in pledge, you must return it to him before the sun sets; it is his only clothing, the sole covering for his skin. In what else shall he sleep? Therefore, if he cries out to Me, I will pay heed, for I am compassionate.” (Ex. 22:24-26)

The Torah tells us that we must be particularly sensitive when we deal with the disadvantaged, the poor, and those in need. When money is lent to a poor Israelite, no interest may be charged. Furthermore, any collateral that is given that is necessary for daily life, such as a coat or blanket, must be returned to the borrower each night so for protection from the elements.

So important is it to be merciful to those in need, teaches Rabbi Yitzchak Blazer, that one is forbidden to be “cruel to be kind” when relating to them. That is, when dealing with a needy member of society, one is not allowed to chastise that person for opportunities they may have missed to improve their lot or for the choices they have made. Any suggestions given them must be spoken with kindness and consideration and in a way which uplifts and inspires them.

God does not look kindly upon one who speaks to a poor person crossly, contemptuously, or with anger, “for I am compassionate.” In some instances you just can’t be “cruel to be kind.”

Rabbi Rosenthal is spiritual leader of Tifereth Israel Synagogue in San Diego.  He may be contacted via [email protected]

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