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Torah Portion: Mishpatim

Book of Exodus

Chaps. 21:1-24:18

February 5, 2016

“When you encounter your enemy’s ox or ass wandering you must take it back to him. When you see the mule of your enemy lying under its burden, and you consider refraining from assisting, you must nevertheless raise it [giving assistance to your enemy].”  (Exo. 23:4-5)

The above teaching from the Book of Exodus traces its origin back over 3,000 years. The early beginnings of the Jewish people were built on a foundation of moral/ethical respect for all humanity-friend and enemy, alike.

Since the beginning of time, human beings have struggled to get along with one another. There is an instinctive impulse to judge and rank humanity according to race, color, and creed; an innate need to claim superiority for one over another. Almost all efforts to level the racial/political playing field have failed. Karl Marx, philosopher and architect of socialism held “that human societies progress through class struggle: a conflict between an ownership class that controls production and a dispossessed laboring class that provides the labor for production.” Marx’s solution was an uprising of the proletariat against the bourgeoisie, resting authority from the hands of the few and placing it into the hands of the people. Communism was not able to sustain itself. Not even the pure communistic kibbutz society of Israel was able to resist the human desire to own, acquire, and subsequently rule.

With competing ideologies, theologies, philosophies, and practices come hatred and enmity, friends and enemies. Each day I am less certain we can ever overcome these instinctive obstacles to universal peace and tranquility. This is what makes the above teaching so profound. The Torah recognized thousands of years ago that people are not going to always get along with one another. Maybe all we can really hope for are special moments when enemies realize they, and those they oppose, are all creations of the One God. Each human being represents an innate and unique holiness. In that moment, when one sees his enemy crouching beneath the burdens he/she must bear, one will put aside hatred, responding instead to the unique holiness of humankind by reaching out.

Professor Abraham Joshua Heschel writes, “The particular individual may not be dear to me-in fact, I may even dislike him. But he is dear to someone else, to his mother, for example, although that, too, is not the reason for his eminence. For even if nobody cares for him, he still is a human being.”

Rabbi Howard Siegel


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