Have mercy on me, my God, have mercy on me,
for in you I take refuge.
I will take refuge in the shadow of your wings
until the disaster has passed. — Psalm 57:1
Several years ago, as terrorists were carrying out random stabbings in Israel, Levi Rosenblatt was stabbed in the neck in New York City. Levi is Israeli, but he was attacked in a synagogue in America while he was in mid-prayer.
Miraculously, Levi survived what should have been a fatal attack. However, one of the most amazing aspects of the story is what was caught on video moments after the attack. As a police officer threatened Calvin Peters, the attacker, the Jews in the synagogue pleaded with the police officer not to shoot Peters, who was clearly suffering with mental issues.
They also begged Peters to put down his weapon. Unfortunately, Peters refused to comply, attempted to attack again, and he was shot and killed. But it is truly amazing that the Jewish people at the scene – who did not know if Levi would survive or not – were not intent on getting revenge. I’m sure they wanted justice, but not Calvin Peters’ destruction.
Similarly, in Psalm 57, David had the chance to kill King Saul who was on the hunt for David. Saul had entered a cave alone, not knowing that David was hiding deep in the same cave. How easy it would have been for David to kill the man who had been out to kill him for years. Instead, David prayed, “Have mercy on me.”
David repeated this phrase twice, and the Jewish sages explain that he was asking for different things each time. The first time, David prayed for mercy so that he himself wouldn’t be killed. The second time, David prayed that he himself should not become an unnecessary killer. He didn’t want Saul to die; he just wanted Saul to leave him alone.
What did David end up doing? David cut a piece of Saul’s cloak and later presented it to Saul hoping to gain Saul’s trust and end the animosity. David sought a new direction in his relationship with Saul, rather than seeking his destruction.
We learn from David how important it is to make a distinction between a person and their actions. Whenever possible, we should try to preserve the person, but change their actions. This is especially true with children, who are still figuring out how to behave in the world. Too many times, instead of redirecting a child’s behavior, we “destroy” the child. It happens with adults, too; we can destroy a person emotionally or spiritually, when really what that person needs is a gentle nudge in the right direction.
Next time you find yourself in a conflict, remember to focus on changing the direction, not on destruction. Aim to eliminate the inappropriate behavior, while preserving the person’s dignity. A gentle voice is more readily heard and accepted than a harsh tone ever is.
With prayers for shalom, peace,
Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein
Founder and President