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  • Writer's pictureRabbi Amy Eilberg

How to Have Fewer Enemies

Among the many many laws in this week’s Torah portion (Mishpatim), one had long escaped my attention and perhaps yours, as well.

“When you encounter your enemy’s donkey wandering, you must take it back to them (the owner). When you see your enemy’s donkey sagging under its burden and would refrain from helping (the owner to lift it up), you must nevertheless help them (help your enemy to lift it up).” (Exodus 23:4-5)

Many years ago, my colleague Rabbi Ed Feld explicated this passage in a way that cracked open the human experience beneath the surface of the law. If I encountered my enemy’s animal wandering, lost, far from its owner, I would obviously be obligated to return it (as with any lost object). But in order to return it, I would have to locate my enemy, risking my personal safety and comfort by entering their territory or home, thus creating a face-to-face meeting with a person I would rather avoid.

The situation in the second verse is even more striking. If I came across my enemy struggling with a large animal on the ground with its load scattered all around, “lifting it with him,” as the text commands, would require that I roll up my sleeves and do sweaty, backbreaking work side by side with my adversary.

The Torah is commanding far more than a detached, grudging willingness to help. What is required is that I offer my time, my comfort and my physical strength, working collaboratively with my opponent for the purpose of helping them in their moment of need.

What might this mitzvah look like in our world?

It might be helping a hated ex-boss with jumper cables when their battery had died in a cold garage after work, being the parent who runs to the field to take one’s ex-friend’s injured child to the emergency room or extending real compassion to someone who has hurt me when they experience their own loss.

I particularly appreciate the Torah’s brief phrase, “would refrain from helping.” The Torah knows that I may well resist the call to help my foe. My heart will clench. I will want to turn the other way, to let someone else help, to rationalize my unwillingness to come to this person’s aid. The Torah responds, “I know you will want to avoid helping, but you must help anyway.”

Then I wonder what might happen after this incident. After I had transcended my instinct to refuse to help, might the other person’s attitude toward me have changed? What of mine toward them? After being through this experience together, the force field of adversarial feeling between us may have weakened.

Surely that is precisely what the Torah has in mind. In fact, an ancient midrash (from Midrash Tanhuma Mishpatim 1) imagines that two donkey drivers who hated each other had the experience described in our text. One remembered the mitzvah to help one’s enemy and stepped up. Afterward, the two began to feel more warmly toward one another, and they went out for a drink together.

In these contentious times, I find myself thinking a lot about “the enemy” — the person whose worldview or political perspective is very different from my own. There was a time when such people were simply regarded as, well, people with a different political perspective than our own. Today, all too often, the one who voted for a different candidate than I did is seen as the enemy.

Yes, surely there is a small percentage of Americans who have committed terrible crimes to advance their political view in recent days. But for many more, there are people who vote differently than we do not because they are evil, stupid or crazy. Rather, their life experiences have led them in different directions than our own. Who knows if we, too, would think differently if we had traveled a different life journey?

Imagine a person whose politics are different from your own — a real person, a decent person … a neighbor, a co-worker, a family member. Would you give them a lift if their car died? Would you bring them groceries if someone at their home was sick? Can you honestly wish them well, as a fellow human being?

If you hesitate in response to those questions, you have fallen into dehumanizing the other. In so doing, we dehumanize ourselves, for we have cut ourselves off unnecessarily from a part of the human family.

If the above questions were easy to answer in the affirmative, how might you take the text to the next level? What might be the next step to creating or repairing a relationship with this former “enemy”? If each of us did this, we would be slowly reweaving the fabric of community in our country. And we would all have fewer enemies.

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