Mishpatim: Friends & Enemies

 In Friendship, Relationship, Torah

Mishpatim:  Friends & Enemies

Rabbi Bonnie Koppell

We all have people to whom we are naturally attracted, perhaps for reasons that are not even obvious to us.  There is just something about them that is comfortable to be with, that makes us feel seen and heard and appreciated.  When we are with our friends, it is mostly effortless.  The conversation flows, misunderstandings are few, and forgiveness is generous.

Then- there are the folks who just rub us the wrong way.  Maybe we can’t quite put our finger on it.  Is it their selfish upstaging of every scenario?  Is it their negative perspective and glass half empty attitude?  Is it the constant gossip that poisons the interaction, or the unethical choices they make?  Whatever it is, their very presence offends us and we don’t want to be with them.  Perhaps they have been actively hurtful to us, and then we really wish them ill.  Then they may truly become an enemy.

My college roommate Janet used to say, “When you love someone, you will forgive anything.  When you don’t love them, the way they hold a fork will make you crazy.”  I think of her wise words all the time- so true!

So what happens when someone we actively dislike needs our help?  Our natural tendency is to avert our eyes and keep on walking.  Why would I want to help a person I don’t care for?

Last week we read the ten commandments.  This week, in Parshat Mishpatim, we learn that what defines our character is not only the grand choices we make in our moral development, the 10 big ones, but the small, everyday details of how we live together in community.  Mishpatim means rules, and there are a whole lot of them- 53 to be exact.  Twenty three are positive commandments- thou shalts, and Thirty are negative- thou shalt nots.

How we treat our parents, how we treat our servants, and how we treat the stranger;  how we lend and borrow, how we speak truth and falsehood, and, of course, the infamous goring ox.  And, among all of these rules- how we treat our enemies.  Spoiler alert- it’s NOT averting our eyes and walking away when they need us.

We read in Exodus 23:5, in Parshat Mishpatim, that if our enemy’s donkey has fallen under its burden, i.e., it is too heavily laden and can’t get up, that we should NOT pass by; “you shall surely release it with them.”

First of all, there is the animal’s suffering to consider, and halacha is very focused on alleviating tzaar baalei chayim, the pain of living creatures.  And, if our enemy is struggling, we are required to look beyond our hostility to our common humanity, to see the tzelem Elohim, the image of God, in our fellow human.  It doesn’t matter how we “feel” about them.  Another human being needs our help and we have a responsibility to help them.

As the law is codified in Deuteronomy, the enemy is transformed into a friend- “If you see your fellow’s donkey or ox. . . “  (Dt. 22:4) Astonishingly, as the rule evolves in the Talmud (Baba Metzia 32b), we are told that if both the animal of a friend and the animal of an enemy needs to be unloaded, that of our enemy has priority.  In this way, the rabbis suggest, we will foster our yetzer ha-tov, our good inclination, and suppress our yetzer ha-ra, our evil inclination.  It would have been very easy for the Israelites to hate the Egyptians, who enslaved them for hundreds of years.  Yet, the Torah teaches us, “Do not hate an Egyptian, for you were strangers in their land.”  (Dt. 23:8)  When we assist another person, we open up the possibility of transforming a relationship of hatred if not into love, at least into peaceful co-existence.

“If you want to make peace,” said Moshe Dayan, “you don’t talk to your friends, you talk to your enemies.”  It’s easy to talk to our friends.  It’s what we love to do.  Talking to people with whom we disagree, people who challenge our opinions, people who have a different perspective- ah- that is the challenge.

Our Temple Chai family has been through a fair amount of disagreement during these past few months.  I shudder to think that there is anyone who considers other members of our community to be their enemies.  I much prefer to imagine that with Rabbi Emily Segal as our new senior rabbi, we have come together to lift each other, to forge bridges of friendship and peace, to join hands and create our future.  As we learn in Avot d’Rabbi Natan (23), “Who is truly a hero?  The person who turns an enemy into a friend.”

This is our opportunity to all be heroes!



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