April 21, 2024
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Meriting Mercy Through Mercy

At one point in David Hamelech’s reign as king, his very own son Avshalom designs an entire revolt against him, committing atrocity upon atrocity. From violating 10 of his father’s concubines in public display, Avshalom’s rebellion against his father was so fierce, he even aimed to kill him. Eventually, however, Avshalom himself was killed.

What was David’s reaction upon hearing the news of Avshalom’s demise?

One might think that David’s emotions and reactions would have been justice based, “he deserved it,” “that’s what was coming to him,” or maybe, “it was for the greater good.” At the very least, he might feel some sense of relief. Instead, however, David’s reaction was far from any of those. As the pesukim state: “And the king (David) trembled … and wept; and thus he said as he went: ‘My son, Avshalom! My son, my son, Avshalom! If only I could have died in your place! Avshalom, my son, my son!’ … The king wrapped his face, and the king cried out in a loud voice, ‘My son, Avshalom! My son, my son, Avshalom!’” (Shmuel 2, chp. 19).

Indeed, David expressed intense grief over his son’s death, despite the fact that this son heavily rebelled against him and was out for his father’s blood. Fascinatingly, the Gemara says that, of David’s eight mentions of “my son,” seven of them were in order to raise Avshalom from the seven chambers of Gehinnom, hell, and regarding the eighth—some say it reunited Avshalom’s head (which had been thrown far from his body) with the rest of him. Some even say it brought Avshalom him to the World to Come! All of this shows the far ranging extent of David’s compassion, care and concern for his son Avshalom, to the point where he even proclaimed, “If only I could have died in your place.”

We might pray to Hashem to have mercy on us like the mercy that a father has for his child. Rav Chaim Shmulevitz (Sichos Mussar, 101) explains that the compassion a father has for his child has no bounds—it’s unconditional and unlimited, as we see from David. It’s that kind of compassion and mercy that we hope for Hashem—our Father in Heaven—to have on us, his children.

Yet, a question remains: How is it that David had such mercy? It, perhaps, seems above the natural human instinct, given the evils Avshalom did and planned to do! Moreover, David’s compassion and wishes even seem morally inappropriate and simply unjust. Yoav (David’s loyal commander) even gave David some rather sharp mussar, rebuke: “Today you have humiliated the faces of all your servants, who saved your soul and the souls of your sons and daughters, and the soul of your wives and the soul of your concubines.” Yoav chastises David that rather than lamenting his rebellious son, he should feel relief that his loyal children, wives and servants are safe.

David Hamelech is very wise. So didn’t he already know Yoav’s very strong point? How can we understand David’s conduct and emotions; where’s the justice?

The Torah (Devarim, Chp. 13) says, “He will give you mercy and be merciful to you.” The Gemara (Shabbat 151b) learns from this pasuk that “whoever is compassionate toward [God’s] creatures, is shown compassion by Heaven, and whoever is not compassionate towards [God’s] creatures is not shown compassion by Heaven.”

This is essentially the principle of “midah k’neged midah, measure for measure.” If you are kind and compassionate, Hashem will be kind and compassionate, and vice versa. Thus, a person can tap into the “system” of rachamim by being merciful himself. This, says Rav Chaim Shmulevitz, is a piece of advice and a segula, merit, to carry with us for the Rosh Hashanah—the time of judgment. During times of Hashem’s expression of judgment, meriting to receive Hashem’s mercy is fundamental and crucial. Even when Moshe Rabbeinu approached Hashem in prayer, he didn’t request based on rights—as if he deserved it (din), but rather he focused on Hashem’s rachamim, asking that Hashem grant his request out of compassion. If even Moshe used the channel of mercy, how much more so do we need to use it. Through being merciful ourselves, we can merit receiving Hashem’s compassion and mercy like that of a fathers towards his child.

Based on this, we can suggest that David Hamelech was trying to experience life through the channel of Hashem’s midah of mercy. His approach in life was to relate to his surroundings from a state of mercy and compassion. Although it could seem that David nevertheless acted unjust through his demonstration of compassion for Avshalom (as Yoav seemingly pointed out), however, perhaps David had a different perspective, through which he wasn’t necessarily showing betrayal of his loved and loyal ones, but rather, it was just the opposite: Being merciful can have a potent effect beyond just our personal benefit. As the Chafetz Chaim (Ahavat Chesed, Inyanei Gemilut Chasadim, chp. 3) says, “If it’s the way of a person to interact with people with the midah of chesed and rachamim, it arouses Hashem’s midah of rachamim, and because of him, Hashem has compassion on the world.” Hence—as a king who governs the masses and wants their betterment and success—perhaps David’s calculation was that if I am merciful to even a child of this sort, Hashem might have mercy on all His children—not just on me, but also for all those whom I care about, especially my loved and loyal ones who are closest to my heart, no matter our spiritual level.

We could be surrounded with opportunities to be merciful. In the 13 attributes of [Hashem’s] mercy, (Shemot, chp. 34), it first states the attribute of chesed, kindness, and then the one of emet, truth. The Gemara observes an apparent dichotomy since chesed indicates Hashem’s mercy, whereas emet indicates Hashem’s justice. They are seemingly contradictory attributes! The Gemara explains that “In the beginning it’s emet, but at the end it’s chesed.”

At first glance, this Gemara could be difficult to understand. Firstly, according to the Gemara’s answer, in the order of the 13 attributes, emet should precede chesed! Secondly, how does emet fit into the list of Hashem’s 13 attributes of mercy? Isn’t emet seemingly the opposite of mercy?!

Rav Avraham Pam (Atarah L’melech, p. 177) brings the aforementioned Gemara in Shabbat, and explains: The Gemara learned that “whoever has mercy on [Hashem’s] creations will be treated with mercy by Heaven” from the pasuk of “He will give you mercy and be merciful to you.” Says Rav Pam, we learn from here that the pasuk of “He will give you mercy” teaches us that Hashems will give you opportunities of mercy. Hashem will provide one with avenues to show compassion on Hashem’s creations, thereby meriting to be shown compassion by Heaven. Hashem wants to bestow a person with goodness, but sometimes a person may not deserve it! So what does Hashem do? In His kindness [chesed], Hashem sets up opportunities for this person to give to another—to be merciful towards others, in order that he rightfully and justly [emet] attain merits to be worthy of receiving mercy and goodness from Hashem. Hence, chesed preceding emet, and emet being related to Hashem’s mercy.

By taking advantage of the opportunities that may come our way to show compassion and be merciful to people, we could not only be helping those people, but ultimately, we could really be helping ourselves and possibly even the world at large.


Binyamin is a graduate of Yeshivas Rabbeinu Yitzchok Elchanan and of Wurzweiler School of Social Work.

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