The Lesson of the Kikayon

As I read the horrifying accounts of the chemical-weapons attack in Syria, what first came to mind was the story of Yonah and the kikayon.

As we will, b’ezras Hashem, read in the haftarah of Minchah on Yom Kippur, the prophet Yonah was forced by Hashem to travel to Nineveh to inspire the people there to do teshuvah. Mission accomplished, he left the city and built himself a booth on its outskirts. As he sat waiting to see what would happen next, Hashem created a large, leafy plant called a kikayon which rose above Yonah to give him shade.

Yonah rejoiced over this plant and the comfort it provided him; when, the very next day, Hashem sent a worm to attack the kikayon so that it withered, Yonah felt faint and deeply distressed.

“Oh, you regret the disappearance of the kikayon, for which you did not labor nor did you make it grow, that lived one night and perished after one night?” Hashem said to Yonah. “Should I then not take pity on the great city of Nineveh, in which there are many more than 120,000 people who do not know their right hand from their left, and many animals as well?”

Ibn Ezra explains that the population in Nineveh far exceeded 120,000. This number was of the children who “do not know their right hand from their left,” i.e. weren’t responsible for the sins committed in the city.

Warfare unfortunately almost always causes a certain amount of what is commonly (and callously) referred to as “collateral damage,” but by turning to chemical weapons, the Assad regime crossed the line into territory that is morally indefensible. Even its key ally Russia isn’t defending the use of such weapons; instead, it claims that the opposition was behind the attack.

While the Assad regime is the epitome of evil, the opposition, riddled with terrorists and their supporters, certainly isn’t much better, so whether the adult victims of the massacre in Syria were innocent civilians or not is a moot point.

But the children of Syria are certainly innocent of any wrongdoing.

Yet after contemplation I concluded that even the adults in Syria — other than those actively involved in terror activities — deserve our pity.

Chazal tell us that during the last three days of Makkos Choshech, the plague of darkness, Bnei Yisrael sought out and inspected the belongings of the Mitzriyim, so that the Egyptians should not be able to deny possession when Bnei Yisrael — heeding Hashem’s command — would ask to “borrow” their silver and gold vessels.

One explanation given by the meforshim is that while the Egyptians sat in the dark like stones, unable to flex a muscle, they had no way to eat a morsel of food or, even more crucially, drink a drop of water. When Bnei Yisrael entered their homes they were filled with compassion, and they fed the Egyptians and gave them to drink. Therefore, when they later asked for silver and golden vessels, the Egyptians could not possibly refuse the very people who had saved their lives!

This explanation is mind-boggling. After 86 long years of enslavement and bitter suffering, the hearts of Bnei Yisrael felt compassion for the very men who had treated them so brutally.

If Bnei Yisrael could find it in their hearts to pity the Egyptians, we can have compassion on the Syrians, despite the hostile relationship between them and our brethren in Eretz Yisrael.

It isn’t only the innocent people of Syria we must worry about. The West has to take steps to prevent creating a precedent. Turning a blind eye to  Syria’s use of weapons of mass destruction will not only give a green light for the Assad regime  to continue to use these weapons, but will also send a dangerous message to other countries that the world will not intervene if they too choose to use these weapons.

While writing this article I spoke to a relative of mine, a noted Torah scholar.

“Where were they until now?” he wanted to know. “A hundred thousand people have been killed in Syria, and until Assad used chemical weapons, killing a few hundred, the world was silent.”

The question is valid, and adds to the moral responsibility to act at this late point.