Mishpatim: Helping One’s Enemy

Copyright 2012 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Mishpatim

“When you encounter your enemy’s ox or ass wandering, you must take it back to him. When you see the ass of your enemy lying under its burden and would refrain from raising it, you must nevertheless raise it with him.”(Shmot/ Exodus 23:4-5)

Good afternoon!

Last week, we discussed the mitzvah of honoring one’s parents, and concluded with the proposition that emotions follow actions. That is, in the case of honoring parents, for example, our emotions of gratitude for life often follow the specific actions that Judaism sets out as ways to fulfill the mitzvah. This week, we see an even clearer example of this idea, in the verses above.

The rabbis note that the phrase translated as “take it back to him” in the first verse involves the doubling of the verb “to return.” This is characteristic of Biblical Hebrew, and merely implies emphasis, but the ancient sages interpret the repetition to teach that even if one found an enemy’s animal far away, or even if it was injured, you still had to take it back to him.

Why go to such trouble to help somebody you don’t even like, or who may have done you real harm in the past? Because emotions follow actions- by helping your enemy, you may learn to feel compassion for him. Perhaps in the course of exerting oneself to reloading or returning the animal, one would find the grudge or negativity becoming irrelevant as the bonds of common humanity were reasserted.  Alternatively, doing something nice for somebody may cause the recipient’s heart to turn, opening up a window for reconciliation.

I mentioned Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler last week but let’s offer a bit more of his thought on the topic of giving and caring:

“If one were only to reflect that a person comes to love the one to
whom he gives, he would realise that the only reason the other person
seems a stranger to him is because he has not yet given to him; he has
not yet taken the trouble to show him friendly concern. If I give to
someone, I feel close to him; I have a share in his being. It follows
that if I were to start bestowing good upon everyone with whom I come
into contact, I would soon feel that they are all my relatives, all my
loved ones. I now have a share in them all; my being has extended into
all of them.”                                                                       (from the collection Strive for Truth, vol I, p. 130.)

Rabbi Dessler proposes that we give first and the love comes after, because a piece of our own being has flowed towards the other. We return the donkey but perhaps gain a human connection, even where there was enmity. This is why actions grounded inhesed, loving-kindness, are mitzvot, commandments and not reliant on the right feelings to be there first. If we waited till we felt like helping our enemy, it might never happen, but if we help without waiting, perhaps we will find there are fewer foes in the world.

Shabbat Shalom,


1 Comment »

  1. Moshe Edelman said

    Again as with last week.
    Yasher koach
    In so few words you are able to distill an essential value of Judaism
    Moshe Edelman

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