D’Var Torah

Mishpatim, 5784 (2/10/2024)  

  What do we owe to people who hate us? What are our moral responsibilities to people with whom we are engaged in active conflict?

  These eternal ethical questions echo from this week’s Torah portion of Mishpatim into our own time. While I will not pretend to know the answer in any given situation, we find in our Torah portion a particularly strong position on this question. Characteristically, the Torah takes a radical moral stance and commands us to stretch ourselves in order to come to the assistance specifically of people who hate us. 

  In last week’s Torah portion Yitro, we read the Aseret HaDibrot – the 10 Utterances or 10 Commandments – which articulate big picture ethical and spiritual responsibilities for the people of Israel.

  In contrast, in this week’s parsha which immediately follows, we encounter a litany of laws which offer guidance for very difficult, messy interpersonal situations. These laws are addressed in great detail in classical rabbinic literature in the Order of the Mishna and Gemara – which together constitute the Talmud – called Nezikin. Nezikin literally means “damages” and is often translated into American legal terminology as Tort law – though as far as I understand the two categories are not exactly equivalent.

  In the Talmud in Nezikin, the Rabbis discuss at great length each of the laws which we encounter in the Torah that seek to offer us some path forward after something has gone very wrong. In our parsha, we can find many such situations which prompted our ancestors to seek the wisdom of Moshe and the judicial system he established.

  We encounter rulings about murder, manslaughter, and interpersonal injury. We see restrictions placed on landowners who hire impoverished people as farm hands. We read descriptions of various kinds of negligence for which an injured party is justified in seeking financial compensation. We even see laws that  acknowledge the possibility of slavery and attempt to circumscribe and limit its enactment. If there are Israelites who find themselves in abject poverty and therefore sell themselves or their children into slavery, the Torah places significant limitations on the conditions of their enslavement. 

  There are two laws in particular that leapt out to me as I reviewed this week’s parsha and it is in these laws that we see the Torah weigh in on our ethical responsibilities to our enemies. We find them in Exodus 23:4 – 5:

כִּ֣י תִפְגַּ֞ע שׁ֧וֹר אֹֽיִבְךָ֛ א֥וֹ חֲמֹר֖וֹ תֹּעֶ֑ה הָשֵׁ֥ב תְּשִׁיבֶ֖נּוּ לֽוֹ׃ {ס}        

When you encounter your enemy’s ox or ass wandering, you must take it back.

כִּֽי־תִרְאֶ֞ה חֲמ֣וֹר שֹׂנַאֲךָ֗ רֹבֵץ֙ תַּ֣חַת מַשָּׂא֔וֹ וְחָדַלְתָּ֖ מֵעֲזֹ֣ב ל֑וֹ עָזֹ֥ב תַּעֲזֹ֖ב עִמּֽוֹ׃ {ס}        

When you see the ass of your enemy lying under its burden and would refrain from raising it, you must nevertheless help raise it.

Exodus 23:4-5

  In each of these verses, the Torah encourages us to offer help to an animal in need – a lost animal in the first case and an overburdened animal in the second case. Yet, the Torah specifies that these animals belong to people with whom you are not on good terms.

  “Your enemy” or “one who hates you.”

  Why does the Torah ask us to extend ourselves in this way for the sake of someone who hates us?

  One classic rabbinic response to this question is this:

  • It would be perfectly natural for us to extend help to someone who is our friend, or even a stranger. Most people have an inner moral compass which would lead us to behave in this way without a G-d given commandment to do so.
  • However, in the case of an enemy or rival, – even when our animosity is justified, the Torah pushes us to act with ethical responsibility and were it not for the push of the Torah we would likely not be inclined to help our fellow human being, and their suffering animal. 

  We need extra encouragement in order to extend kindness and humanity to someone who has not shown us kindness or humanity.

  This is a basic principle of Midrash Halakhah, as I learned it from my teacher Rabbi Dr. Daniel Reifman:

  • The mitzvot of the Torah are written in order to encourage in us more moral behavior than would otherwise be our inclination.

  The Torah does not describe obvious ethical truths. Even ethical truths which may seem obvious to us now have certainly not been regarded as obvious throughout human history and are still disregarded by many today.

  That is why G-d took the time to elucidate at Mt. Sinai the negative mitzvot of the 10 Commandments:

  • Don’t Murder.
  • Don’t cheat on your spouse or partner.
  • Don’t Steal.
  • Don’t lie to get someone else punished by law.
  • Don’t envy what belongs to others.

  If, unfortunately, we see that people still give into temptations and engage in these obviously harmful behaviors with the knowledge that G-d commanded us against them at Mt. Sinai, imagine how many more people might succumb to the temptation to harm were it not for these Divine commandments. 

  Now, imagine for a moment that we took seriously not only the letter of the mitzvot quoted above but also the spirit underlying them. What would the world look like if we each truly felt a G-d given responsibility to treat our enemies and opponents with humanity, compassion, and basic decency?

  This is the moral of these laws we read in Exodus 23:4-5. No one – even one who espouses hatred towards you – is unworthy of your love, consideration, and kindness.

  Perhaps, through your act of kindness they will no longer remain your enemy.  In the Talmud, of course, the rabbis delineate a limited legal scope of responsibility that we have to actually return a lost object not only to an enemy, but to anyone. They conclude that we should be willing to miss work to do so for a limited period of time – but not if it will jeopardize your ability to feed those who depend on you. In such a case, you should take a more minimal measure like hanging a sign or making an announcement in the marketplace.

  While there must be a limit to the extent to which we can hold someone legally accountable for not showing others humanity and kindness, there should be no limit to the Torah’s call on our hearts to extend kindness, help, and support to everyone we encounter who is in need.

  Despite the limitations of the impulses of our hearts which will surely pull us to abandon the lost item of our enemy, we should surely return it to him.

  This is in accord with what the ancient Rabbis, of blessed memory, said in Kiddushin 30b:

כָּךְ הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא אָמַר לָהֶם לְיִשְׂרָאֵל: בָּנַי, בָּרָאתִי יֵצֶר הָרָע וּבָרָאתִי לוֹ תּוֹרָה תַּבְלִין. וְאִם אַתֶּם עוֹסְקִים בַּתּוֹרָה – אֵין אַתֶּם נִמְסָרִים בְּיָדוֹ, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר: ״הֲלוֹא אִם תֵּיטִיב שְׂאֵת״,

So too the Holy One, Blessed be He, said to Israel: My children, I created an evil inclination, which is the wound, and I created Torah as its antidote. If you are engaged in Torah study you will not be given over into the hand of the evil inclination, as it is stated: “If you do well, shall it not be lifted up?” (Genesis 4:7). One who engages in Torah study lifts himself above the evil inclination.

Kiddushin 30b

  So, may our engagement with Torah and Jewish practice help us to lift above our lesser inclinations and to extend aid and human kindness towards all those in need, even our enemies.

Shabbat Shalom.