World of the sages: Compassion for the unknowledgeable

Every Saturday night, we accompany the departing Shabbat with the recitation of the pertinent havdala (differentiation) prayer.

Every Saturday night, we accompany the departing Shabbat with the recitation of the pertinent havdala (differentiation) prayer. This prayer is first said as part of the silent Amida and a different form is recited over a cup of wine following the evening prayer. When in the Amida should this prayer be inserted? Our sages tell us that havdala should be added to the fourth blessing that deals with the intellect (M. Berachot 5:2) and explain the placement (B. Berachot 33a). According to one approach, this fourth blessing is the first weekday benediction, as the first three sections of the Amida are included in the Shabbat liturgy. We thus appropriately delineate between Shabbat and the workweek in this first weekday blessing. Another opinion suggests that differentiating between the holy and the mundane, between the sanctity of Shabbat and the routine weekdays, is an exercise in wisdom. The most suitable place for havdala, therefore, is in the blessing where we acknowledge the wisdom, understanding and knowledge that are divinely bestowed upon us. In this context, the Talmud launches into an exposition of the supreme value of the intellect: Great is knowledge, as demonstrated by the fact that the first weekday blessing petitions God for mental faculties - "You favor humans with perception and teach mortals understanding, please grace us with knowledge, understanding and insight. Blessed are You, O God, gracious giver of knowledge." Moreover, only with understanding can we hope to recognize to whom we are addressing our requests for repentance, forgiveness and satisfaction of our needs (Rashba, 13th century, Barcelona). According to one sage, we equate possessing knowledge to the reconstruction of the Temple. A later commentator expands on this theme: Another talmudic passage states that if the Temple is not rebuilt in your days, it is equivalent to it being destroyed in your day (Y. Yoma 38c). Thus acquiring knowledge, which is akin to rebuilding the Temple, is a way to demonstrate that our central place of worship was not laid to waste in our day (Rabbi Naftali Katz, 17th-18th centuries, Poland). Acquiring knowledge, therefore, is a mighty quest that mirrors our focal site of communion with the Almighty. Elsewhere our sages tell us that if a person possesses gold and silver, precious stones and pearls and all mouthwatering valuables in this world, yet has no knowledge, what has such a person really acquired (Vayikra Rabba 1:6)? One sage reported that it is unanimously accepted that the only true pauper is one who is impoverished of knowledge (B. Nedarim 41a). In the Land of Israel, a popular aphorism encapsulated the centrality of intellectual capacity: One who has it - referring to knowledge - within him, has everything within him; one who does not have it within him, has nothing within him. If he possesses this, what does he lack? If he does not possess this, what does he possess? The apparent repetition in this well-known proverb may indicate two types of people, or two avenues to mental faculties: If you are born with a sharp intellect, you have this gift. Yet even someone who is not born with this gift can still possess knowledge through application and commitment to acquiring wisdom (Rabbi Hanoch Zundel, 19th century, Bialystok). Yet among these statements lauding the value of the mind, we find a startling - and perhaps troubling - proclamation: It is forbidden to have mercy on someone who does not have knowledge. A scriptural support is offered for this unexpected declaration: "For it is not a people of understanding; therefore its maker shall not have mercy on it" (Isaiah 27:11). While we can understand the value and pivotal role of mental capacity, it is nevertheless troubling to hear that mercy is precluded from the mentally incompetent. At first blush, this statement may even appear absurd: Could it be that there is an intellectual threshold that defines who deserves our compassion? Different explanations for this passage have been offered. Returning to the biblical passage cited, the prophet describes how the Almighty will not compassionately alleviate the troubles of Israel as long as Israel fails to understand that its suffering is due to its iniquity. God hopes that the nation's continued torment will ultimately lead to repentance (Rabbi David Kimhi, 12th-13th centuries, Provence). In this light the lack of compassion for the unknowledgeable could be seen as a tactic to goad the development of the intellect. Of course, one could question the effectiveness of this method. According to another approach, lack of knowledge is itself accompanied by a lack of compassion. People who have no wisdom will have no mercy on others, and therefore the sages instruct us that we need not have mercy on them (Rabbi Nahman of Bratslav, 18th-19th century, Ukraine). This approach may not sit easy with many of us: Are our sages teaching that compassion should be quid pro quo, that only one who can be considerate is deserving of sympathy? One hassidic master willingly departed from the obvious reading of the text to offer an innovative reading with a powerful message. Rabbi Yitzhak Kalish (1779-1848) of Warka in Poland was known for his compassionate style of leadership. His humility was known and his love for others served as a worthy paradigm. The Warka Hassidim were know for their willingness to drink an alcoholic l'haim as they sat together in an atmosphere of camaraderie. The Warka Rebbe was once asked how he could liberally show kindness and concern particularly for people who have no knowledge. The master replied: "As humans, we naturally feel empathy toward others. This innate response, however, is reserved for those with knowledge who perhaps have fallen on difficult times. With regard to someone whose intellect is lacking, the Talmud instructs us to go counter to our instincts and feel compassion towards such people." "Doesn't the passage say it is forbidden (assur) to have mercy on the unknowledgeable?" inquired the disciples. Punning on the double meaning of the Hebrew word assur, the Warka Rebbe replied: "The Talmud teaches that we are bound (assur) - not forbidden - to be compassionate to such unfortunate people." The writer is on the faculty of Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies and is a rabbi in Tzur Hadassah.