I consider myself fortunate to be a citizen of a country that, as a theme, has rock-solid values. Its currency, the most widely circulated throughout the world, proudly proclaims the One in whom we trust. Its constitution trail-blazed the modern standards of human dignity. The Rebbe, in fact, often asserted that America is a "nation of kindness." (I'm also very aware that the United States is far from perfect, but, as I said, I'm referring to the rule rather than the exception.)
Two news items caught my attention this week. Both reported on dissatisfaction with U.S. policy in certain areas.
The first story is centered in Scotland, where the Scottish government is coming under fresh pressure – mostly from the U.S. – to justify its decision last year to release Lockerbie bomber, Abdel Basset Ali al-Megrahi, on medical grounds. Megrahi, who was serving a life sentence for the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 which killed 270 people, was released on "compassionate grounds" because he was suffering from advanced cancer that made it likely – or so it was claimed – that he had less than three months to live. Nearly a year later, however, Megrahi remains alive in Libya, where he was greeted as a hero on his return.
The leader of Scotland's Roman Catholics, Cardinal Keith O'Brien, joined the debate. He contrasted Scotland's "culture of compassion" with what he called a "culture of vengeance" in parts of the United States. "I would rather live in a country where justice is tempered by mercy than exist in one where vengeance and retribution are the norm."
The second story's title says it all: Patients' Last Two Months of Life Cost Medicare $50 Billion Last Year; Is There a Better Way?
Last year, as it turns out, Medicare paid $55 billion (!) just for doctor and hospital bills during the last two months of patients' lives. That's more than the budget for the Department of Homeland Security, or the Department of Education. And it has been estimated that 20 to 30 percent of these medical expenses may have had no meaningful impact.
The article continues: "Now you might think this would have been an obvious thing for Congress to address when it passed health care reform, but as we [CBS's 60 Minutes] reported last November in the midst of the debate, what use to be a bipartisan issue has become a politically explosive one—a perfect example of the rising costs that threaten to bankrupt the country and how hard it is to rein them in..."
Two critiques. One claiming that we are too harsh. Another arguing that we are too soft.
There are situations that call for unbounded kindness, logic-defying kindness, kindness that demands real sacrifice. Such as when human life is at stake.
Abraham personified the attribute of kindness. His kindness flows in the blood of his descendants.
Then there are times when we must be unbendingly harsh, perhaps even unnaturally so. Times when to be soft is a crime against humanity. As Rabbi Eliezer says in the Midrash, "One who has mercy on cruel people, is ultimately being cruel to merciful people."
Isaac was the embodiment of discipline. He, too, is our father. From him we inherited the capacity to be tough as nails.
The key is knowing the appropriate reaction for a particular circumstance.
This is the quality we inherited from Jacob, the "choicest of the Patriarchs": the ability to integrate the qualities of Abraham and Isaac, to know how to temper each with the other, and to know when one is called for exclusively.