A view of Congregation Beth Israel in Colleyville, Texas, on Jan. 17, 2022. (Photo/JTA-Emil Lippe-Getty Images)
A view of Congregation Beth Israel in Colleyville, Texas, on Jan. 17, 2022. (Photo/JTA-Emil Lippe-Getty Images)

In a time of crisis, set aside resentments and rouse your better angels 

The Torah column is supported by a generous donation from Eve Gordon-Ramek in memory of Kenneth Gordon.


Mishpatim

Exodus 21:1-24:18


As three stars appeared in the night sky at the end of Shabbat on Jan. 15, we breathed an enormous, collective sigh of relief. Four hostages including a beloved rabbi, who were held at Congregation Beth Israel in Colleyville, Texas, for 11 terrifying hours, went free and home to their families.

But with that joy and overwhelming gratitude, we also may have experienced a range of emotions about the fate of the hostage-taker — sorrow for the bloodshed and waste of life, mixed with a kind of unsettling elation.

This conflicting set of emotions is right in line with challenging and highly aspirational Jewish values, including “If your enemy falls, do not exult; if he trips, let your heart not rejoice.” (Proverbs 24:17)

Tempting as it is to celebrate the downfall of people who would harm us, the Torah tries to temper those natural emotions.

After the pomp and grandeur of the giving of the Ten Commandments in last week’s portion, Mishpatim lays out a long and mostly on-the-ground list of “dos and don’ts,” one of which might help us build a society where peace between adversaries could actually have a chance: “When you see the donkey of your enemy lying under its burden, though you would refrain from raising it, you must surely raise it with him.” (Exodus 23:5)

This remarkable little mitzvah, buried among so many others in our parashah, acknowledges the complex monologue that might go on inside of a person witnessing the plight of their enemy’s animal (the Hebrew is more accurately rendered as “the one you hate,” rather than “your enemy”).

This commandment looks right out of the scroll and says, “I see you. I know you don’t want to help that donkey. After all, it belongs to a person you hate, an enemy, one who may hate you in return. Why should you bother? Because it is the right thing to do, and you must do it. And not alone, either. You will help that defenseless animal, and you should do it together.”

At a moment of potential and understandable schadenfreude, where we might stand legitimately in a pose of righteous gloating, God says “No. That is not the path to peace.” Instead, we are to rouse our better angels, swallow our pride and place the good of an innocent creature over the seductive urge to let them both, the animal and especially its owner, continue to struggle.

(This and closely related mitzvot are the foundation for the Jewish value of tza’ar ba’alei chayim, the prohibition against causing unnecessary suffering for animals, and the basis for many of the continually evolving laws of kashrut including “do not boil a kid in its mother’s milk” (Exodus 23:19), which makes the first of its three appearances in this week’s portion).

When altruism and egoism collide, the Torah’s “though you would refrain from raising it” recognizes that altruism may not be as innate as we might wish.

We imagine that we are programmed to help, to share, to work in cooperation with others. To an extent, that seems to be true, as most young children who are loved and nurtured will help someone in need, especially someone with whom they have an even minimal bond.

But most of us, somewhere along the line, learn enough about the world to know that competition is steep and persistent, and there are plenty of people who seem quite disinclined to help us and our donkey if we were in need.

And so, the seeds of self-preservation above all else, zero-sum thinking and intractability take root.

Dr. Armin Zadeh of Johns Hopkins University concludes in “The Forgotten Art of Love,” that “contrary to the widespread perception that ‘survival of the fittest’ relates to perseverance and physical strength, more recent analyses of evolutionary biology point to the human ability to form alliances and social bonds as the key reason for human dominance.”

A balance of egoism and altruism is necessary for societies to thrive, “but true balance between egoism and altruism is difficult to attain and maintain. The mighty human drives for power, survival, and territory are closely linked to egoism. Altruism … opposes egotistic instincts and only stands a chance with the development of humility and love.”

The Torah knows well that to exhibit love for all of God’s creatures — by helping both the burdened donkey and her deeply disliked owner — is not easy. To work with a hated “other” for a larger good requires humility on both sides, a willingness to overcome grudges (even briefly) in the service of something much greater, for we are all inextricably bound up with one another. As Martin Luther King Jr. wrote so powerfully in his Letter from Birmingham Jail in 1963: “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”

With this plain, honest and deeply challenging mitzvah, God gives us a recipe for peace: Humanity stands a chance for survival when we set aside our resentments to help each other in times of crisis, to raise a fallen animal that needs two to lift it, and finally recognize that we are one family on one ailing planet that needs us all to stem the tide of hatred with love, and live and work together while we can.

Rabbi Shana Chandler Leon
Rabbi Shana Chandler Leon

Rabbi Shana Chandler Leon is rabbi of Congregation Ner Tamid in the Sunset District of San Francisco, her hometown. She is a graduate of the Academy for Jewish Religion California and a member of Rabbis Without Borders. She can be reached at [email protected].