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Taste of Torah: Mishpatim

כִּי־תִרְאֶה חֲמוֹר שֹׂנַאֲךָ רֹבֵץ תַּחַת מַשָּׂאוֹ וְחָדַלְתָּ מֵעֲזֹב לוֹ עָזֹב תַּעֲזֹב עִמּוֹ׃

When you see your enemy’s donkey lying under its burden and would refrain from raising it, you must nevertheless raise it with him.                                          

— Exodus 23:5

In 1972, Hong Kong-born Canadian writer Victor Chan was granted an audience with His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama. Curious, Chan could not help but blurt out: “Do you hate the Chinese?” A positive response would have been understandable: pushed into exile during the 1959 Tibetan uprising, the Buddhist leader has spent his career preserving Tibetan culture in the face of systematic oppression by the Chinese government. But, characteristically, the leader refused to entertain such an idea: “No,” he answered emphatically in English. His secretary then translated, “His Holiness considers the Chinese his brothers.” 

Loving the enemy is a core teaching of Buddhism and also of Christianity. “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,” says Jesus in the book of Matthew. Judaism often bears the reputation of lacking this concept. But is it fair to say that the Torah teaches hatred for an enemy? In Mishpatim, rather than a lofty ideal, we receive the practical command above: do not pass by a person in need, no matter who they are. Bava Metzia 32b clarifies that when both an enemy and a friend need assistance, we must first help the enemy, “in order to suppress the evil inclination.” In the words of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, the enemy takes precedence so that we can overcome our own “estrangement, distance, ill-feeling.” We must help all human beings, but it is our enemies who can most help us in the process.

The Dalai Lama agrees. “Merely thinking about compassion and reason and patience will not be enough to develop them,” he writes. “We must wait for difficulties to arise and then attempt to practise them. And who creates such opportunities? Not our friends, of course, but our enemies. They are the ones who give us the most trouble. So if we truly wish to learn, we should consider enemies to be our best teachers.”

As we go through life, let us refuse to pass by opportunities to grow in our compassion and reason and patience. Let us be thankful for the teachers who give us the chance to do so, especially those who challenge us the most.