Late on a cold winter night in January 1948, thirty-five Palmach soldiers headed out, surreptitiously carrying military and medical supplies on their backs to the besieged community of Gush Etzion. Dawn broke before they reached their destination and the convoy was spotted by an elderly Arab. The young men decided to spare the life of the old shepherd who then informed local Arab villagers of their whereabouts. Hundreds of armed Arabs appeared and ambushed the Palmach group, brutally massacring all thirty-five members of the convoy. Thinking they were being kind and humane, the Jewish soldiers paid bitterly for the mercy they showed the old Arab shepherd.
In I Samuel 15, the Bible tells the story of King Saul and his war against the Amalekites. In this story, too, Saul’s misplaced mercy ended up harming the Jewish people many years later.
At the beginning of the chapter, Samuel instructs King Saul to wage war against Amalek and to completely destroy the nation and all its property. Saul launches the attack and is successful in battle, but he commits two grave errors. He keeps the Amalekite king Agag alive, and he fails to kill the livestock as instructed. Angry that his instructions were not followed properly, God sends Samuel to rebuke Saul for not listening to Him and to kill Agag.
The sages teach us that Agag managed to impregnate a concubine in the time between being spared by Saul and killed by Samuel, which ultimately led to the birth of Haman the Agagite many years later. For the transgression of keeping Agag alive, Samuel informed Saul that “just as you have rejected the word of Hashem, so has Hashem rejected you from being king over Israel” (verse 26).
The Bible commentator known as the Malbim explains how Saul made this grave miscalculation. The word chamal, to have pity, appears three times in this story: in Samuel’s instructions to Saul the prophet says “do not have pity (CH-M-L) on [Amalek]” (verse 3); “Saul and the people took pity (CH-M-L) on Agag” (verse 9); and Saul defends their actions of saving the animals by saying “I have brought them from the Amalekites, for the people took pity (CH-M-L) on the best of the sheep and cattle in order to slaughter them to Hashem” (verse 15).
The Malbim explains that as opposed to other Hebrew terms expressing compassion such as R-CH-M or CH-U-S, the Hebrew root CH-M-L refers to a person unnecessarily taking pity on something he has no real need for, but he makes the “intellectual determination that it is not proper to destroy this thing and its continued existence is better.” God specifically used the term CH-M-L in this story to indicate to Saul that it is normal and appropriate for him to be distressed by the killing of the Amalekites and the destruction of their property. Nevertheless, God was warning Saul that ultimately, he must submit that sense of compassion to God’s divine wisdom and justice.
The sages apply the verse in Ecclesiastes (7:16) to Shaul’s misplaced mercy: “Do not be overly righteous.” Rabbi Shmuel Eidels (1555 – 1631), known as the Maharsha, explains that this verse teaches us that we should not be too merciful towards the wicked and that this was, indeed, Saul’s error. Ultimately, a leader’s compassion for the wicked is cruelty to his own people, who must suffer the consequences of that misplaced mercy down the road. Had Saul listened to God and not spared Agag, Haman would never have been born and the Jews of Persia would not have been threatened with annihilation.
The same is true in modern times. As the brutal attack by Hamas terrorists on October 7, 2023, proves, we were too merciful and kind to our enemies in the past and we are suffering the consequences.
Death and destruction are painful realities of war and should be avoided whenever possible. On a daily basis, Israel’s military and political leaders must balance the proper and necessary compassion towards our enemies with the duty of keeping Israel safe. But as we learn from Saul and the 35 Palmach soldiers, a failure to strike the right balance can have disastrous consequences. We pray that God gives Israel’s modern leaders the wisdom to make the right decisions.
Rabbi Tuly Weisz is the director of Israel365 and editor of The Israel Bible and Rabbi Dr. Ethan Eisen is a psychologist in Beit Shemesh.