By Rabbi Brent Gutmann
This week as we venture further into the Book of Exodus we see our Israelite ancestors coalesce further into a community. The portion contains plenty of material to consider: a litany of laws religious and secular and the famous affirmative statement said upon accepting the Torah, “we will do and we will understand” (naaseh v’nishmah). Yet beyond these proclamations comes a revealing law that gets at what it means to be a community. We read: When you encounter your enemy’s ox or ass wandering, you must take it back to him. When you see the ass of your enemy lying under its burden and would refrain from raising it, you must nevertheless raise it with him. (Exodus 23:4-5)
There are several details of this commandment to consider. As we think about the subject of property, we could compare this commandment to other passages from Torah. For example, the discussion of the lost object (hashavat aveidah) (Deut 22:1-3), emphasizes the obligation to maintain and return property. In the rabbis’ discussion, returning lost property is both a commandment (mitzvah) and a matter of common decency (derekh eretz). But this passage from Exodus is even more radical. It mandates that we must act to protect the interests of those who we consider our enemies. Rabbi Yosef of Orleans writes, “it is a greater commandment to do it for your enemy than for your friend, in order to crush the evil impulse.” Thus, this commandment’s observance goes beyond benefiting the one who owns the property. It helps us define behaviors which serve the best interests of our community.
This short commandment has stirred the thinking of our religious leaders throughout millennia. Consider a comment on the meaning of the word ‘enemies’ from one of our earliest rabbinic commentaries, Mekhilta d’Rabbi Yishmael:
The Ox of Thine Enemy. R. Josiah says: This means of a heathen worshiping idols. For thus we find everywhere that the heathen are designated as enemies of Israel … [cites Deut. 21:10 and 23:10 as proof texts] … R. Eliezer says: This passage refers to a proselyte who has relapsed into his former evil predilection. R. Isaac says: This passage refers to an apostate Israelite. R. Jonathan says: This passage refers to an Israelite. How then can Scripture say: “Thine enemy”? It is simply this: If one has beaten his son or has had a quarrel with him, he becomes his enemy for the time being. (trans., Lauterbach [Philadelphia: JPS, 2004], p. 469)
Step by step, these rabbis expand the meaning of enemies from other nations to those among us who do not share our values to perhaps members of our own family. And Rabbi Jonathan rightfully adds his gloss that whoever we define as an enemy may be limited further to a snapshot in time. Furthermore, the text acknowledges that while living in close proximity with each other, disagreements and tensions are possible, we must retain our notion of ‘fair play.’ “What’s mine is mine and what’s yours is yours.” (Avot 5:13) We should communicate clearly and work towards clearly defined expectations. When competition arises, we should maintain our commitment to good sportsmanship and work to deescalate whenever competition becomes adversarial.
So too, Rabbi Edwin Friedman teaches that we can only change the relationships that we are a part of, and Rabbi Martin Buber teaches that the ideal relationship is one dominated by respect, which he calls the “I-Thou.” By cultivating a community of k’vod not k’vetch—of respect not complaint, we can draw individuals into our amazing Jewish community. By pooling our people and resources when the situation permits, we can accomplish more together than we can individually. We are helped to adopt that perspective when we see our community through a lens of abundance rather than the lens of scarcity. This is what being a community means: to believe that it is possible to overcome our differences and that together we can help raise each other’s burdens that goodness may dwell in all our homes and meeting houses.
Brent Gutmann is the new Senior Rabbi of Temple Beth Zion and sincerely seeks respectful relationships and willing partnerships with anyone who holds the best interests of our congregations and community in their hearts.