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Helping Your Enemy #593

Parashat Ki Tetzei (Deuteronomy 22:4)

 “If you see your fellow’s ass or ox fallen on the road,
do not ignore him: you must help him raise it.”

Helping Your Enemy

What would you do if your worst enemy called you and asked for your help during a crisis?

Would you walk away? Would you say, “No?”

Or, would you agree to help, hoping that by working together, and solving the problem, you could kindle a positive relationship?

Similarly, what would you do if out of the blue, a former adversary or estranged family member, invited you to party, wedding or bar/bat mitzvah?

Would you shred the invitation, or would you give them the benefit of the doubt?

These questions are covered in an obscure but in many ways instructive scenario that the Torah presents us with this week, as we approach Rosh Hashanah.

The Torah tells us, “If you see your fellow’s ass or ox fallen on the road, do not ignore him: you must help him raise it.” (Deuteronomy 22:4)

There are certain assumptions associated with this Biblical verse: After all, when you think about it, if the person whose ox or ass has fallen were your friend, there would be no need for the Torah to command you to assist.

So why would the Torah take the time to advise us to assist someone who we are at odds with? The key, according to our ancient rabbis, is found within in one important phrase: “help him.”

The great 13th century rabbi, Nachmanides (1194-1270), notes that if you help another person, your enemy in particular, you may ultimately “forget your enmity, and remember that he is your fellow.”

Too often, when a crisis or disagreement occurs within a family or a circle of friends, bad feelings can be triggered, and — left unattended — can last a lifetime. 

This is particularly true during these fractured political times where lifelong friendships and family ties are often stretched, if not broken. 

The anti-gossip rabbi, the Chofetz Chaim (1839-1933), devoted his lifetime to helping people avoid animosity and gossip after — as a young man — he witnessed families and friendships splinter during a crisis in the 1870s over whether to fire the town rabbi.

He devoted a lifetime to assisting people use language to build relationships rather than destroy them.

In that spirit, this week’s Torah portion — Ki Tetzei (“When you take the field against your enemy”) provides us with timeless advice and the tools to banish useless personal conflict.

Indeed, we want to get along with our friends, family members and colleagues, but old hurts — even small ones — can be hard to set aside, and often we don’t know where to begin.

All the more reason to look at someone in a personal, health, or work crisis and ask: “How can I help?” This in many cases can break the deadlock.

This message is particularly poignant during this Jewish month of Elul, as we approach Rosh Hashanah. The Talmud tells us that before we can achieve “shalom” with God, we must first make peace with our fellow human beings, for in the end, it is not God who judges us, but rather the people whose lives we affect — and ultimately ourselves.

This week’s Torah portion has a simple message regarding disputes and disagreements which we’ve collected and stockpiled during the past year.

This week’s Torah portion can also be connected to the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem.

Throughout the centuries, our Sages have debated, “Why did God allow the destruction of the second Jerusalem temple, leaving only the Western Wall standing?”

The Talmud recounts the story of a wealthy man who lived in 1st century Jerusalem. In advance of an upcoming party, he sends his servant to deliver an invitation to his friend, Kamsa.

However, the servant misdelivers the invitation to Bar Kamsa, an enemy of the wealthy man. Upon seeing the detested Bar Kamsa at his party, the host orders him to leave.

Bar Kamsa tries to make peace. First, he offers to pay for the food he eats, then for half of the expenses, and then for the entire party.

Each time, the host says “No.” And all this occurs within the sight of the rabbis who sit passively.

Humiliated, Bar Kamsa vows revenge against the rabbis who did not intervene and spare his embarrassment. He visits the local Roman emissary stating that the Jewish community is disloyal to Rome.   Ultimately, the Caesar concludes this to be the case and destroys the Temple.

So, ask our Sages, “Why was the Temple destoyed?” And they answer, because of Sinat Chi’nam — senseless hatred.

How much Sinat Chi’nam are we surrounded by these days? And how much of it have we contributed to?

Indeed, this is the time of year where on top of organizing holiday dinners, booking time off from work, and confirming our High Holiday tickets, we are encouraged to begin performing a Cheshbon Nefesh — an accounting of the soul.

Do we wish to let personal animosities fester, or — in the name of peace — are we willing to pick up the phone and call someone we haven’t talked to in a while and ask, “How are you?”

And, if that person discloses a problem, are we willing, like the enemy in the Biblical story, to help them back on their feet?

Therefore, with about two weeks until Rosh Hashanah, let us consider, in the name of peace, taking that first step.

Who needs help lifting their load?

As Nachmanides taught 700 years ago, maybe — just maybe — if we offer to help another person, we can also bury animosity, establish equality as fellow human beings, and bring about peace.

If the goal of life is ultimately to turn ourselves into something better, is it preferable to turn our backs when a family member or friend is buckling under adversity?

Or does it makes more sense for us, and for them, to travel a more peaceful and sacred road together?

Some people are stubborn; they hold on to grudges. They will not change. We may ultimately be right. But we can only facilitate change within our own lives, if we are willing to let go of “the small stuff.”

Shalom Bayit, peace within our domain, does not always require that we be right.

In spite of who is ultimately right or wrong, sometimes the angel of truth must give way to the angel of peace.

Shabbat Shalom, v’kol tuv.

Rabbi Irwin Huberman

Sat, July 4 2020 12 Tammuz 5780