Texts and beliefs By Rabbi Natasha Mann 31st Jan 2019

There are few cases in the Torah in which emotions or thoughts are directly demanded. While we are called to increase love and avoid hatred and jealousy, these mitzvot are far outnumbered by commandments on interpersonal and ritual actions. However, this is not because the Law is independent of our inner lives; on the contrary, action based mitzvot are often aimed at shaping and refining the way we think, feel, and view the world. 

The peculiar case of the enemy’s ox, found among the great variety of laws in Parashat Mishpatim, is an example of a practical mitzvah intended to alter our emotional experiences. Exodus 23:4-5 reads as follows: ‘If you meet your enemy’s ox or his donkey going astray, you must surely bring it back to him. If you see the donkey of someone who hates you lying under its burden, and you would refrain from helping it, you must surely help him with it.’ While this mitzvah may seem to be concerned with the animal regardless of the relationship with the enemy, this interpretation is questionable when compared with the similar law found in Parashat Ki Teitzei (Deuteronomy 22:1): ‘You must not see your brother’s ox or his sheep driven out and turn yourself away from them; you must surely return them to your brother.’ Were the mitzvot only concerned with the treatment of animals, the latter would be superfluous; after all, if I am obligated to help an ox even when it belongs to my enemy, I should be able to extrapolate that I must help all oxen. So why must I be told twice: first for an enemy’s ox, and then for a friend’s?

The sages of the Talmud (Bava Metzia 32b) teach from these verses that in a hypothetical dilemma between helping a friend’s ox and an enemy’s ox, one must first help their enemy. Furthermore, they conclude that if helping the friend’s ox would fulfil the biblical mitzvah but the enemy requires help in loading his animal (which is not a biblical requirement), one must still prioritise the enemy. This counterintuitive order of priority exists, according to the sages, to help us ‘conquer one’s (evil) inclination’.

Thus we are urged to consider those we dislike as equal in humanity and need with those we love; moreover, we are taught to prioritise those we dislike in order to train ourselves out of the impulse to ignore them. That impulse itself is characterised in the verse ‘If you see the donkey of someone who hates you lying under its burden, and you would refrain from helping it, you must surely help him with it’ (Ex. 23:5, emphasis mine). As we are more likely to be acutely aware of the needs of those we love, prioritising our enemies allows us to ensure that their needs do not go ignored.

Parashat Mishpatim does not tell us directly that we must love our enemies. Instead, in giving us this special obligation towards those with whom we have hostile relationships, we are provided with a method for training ourselves out of hostility. If we can teach ourselves to remain aware of the needs of those we would rather ignore, and respond with unhindered aid, we might find that we able to unburden ourselves of hatred.

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