black and white engraving
"Moses and the Elders See God," an early 18th Century illustration by Jacopo Amigoni

Seeing the human being on the other side of the divide

Mishpatim
Exodus 21:1–24:18
II Kings 12:1-17

I have long been fascinated by an apparently obscure law in Parashat Mishpatim, which has striking implications for the moment in which we live.

“When you encounter your enemy’s donkey wandering, you must take it back to him. If you see the donkey of one who hates you lying under its burden and would refrain from raising it, you must raise it with him” (Exodus 23:4-5).

Picture the situation in a contemporary setting: You find an obviously lost bike that you know belongs to someone from whom you are estranged. Tell the truth: What might go through your mind? An openhearted desire to use the moment as a time to pursue reconciliation? Or a more ordinary response, like “Let someone else help”?

You might protest my hypothetical. Of course you would step up to help, regardless of your feelings for that person. It is obvious; the only decent thing to do. Then why does the Torah need to tell us about this case? Don’t we already know that it is a mitzvah to return lost property and to help a person we encounter in distress?

It is as if the banner command to ‘love our neighbor as ourselves’ does not apply to people who hold political views that are abhorrent to us.

The Torah knows that something inside of us might resist doing the right thing. So the Torah explicitly commands us to overcome that small-minded instinct, to stretch beyond our comfort zone (assuming it is safe to do so), and offer our time and strength to help our adversary in her or his moment of need. As the biblical commentators see it, this is not only to help the fallen animal in the Torah’s scenario, but to help the person who has hurt us grievously.

Now let us add another layer of contemporary reality. Let’s say that the owner of the bike is a local leader of the political party you oppose. Would you still be willing to contact this person — your political nemesis — to return his or her property? Or, in the Torah’s second case cited above, if you came upon the person having dropped three large bags of groceries in the parking lot, would you be ready to put aside your political disagreement and reach out to this human being as you would to any other?

It is well known that one feature of entrenched identity conflict, regardless of the subject of the dispute, is the tendency to dehumanize the people on the other side of the divide. We tend to assume “the other side” is derisive of us. This may be true, but I suggest “we” do the same to “them,” dismissing them in generalized and pejorative ways. We think of “them” as obviously less smart, moral or sane than we are.

It is as if the banner command to “love our neighbor as ourselves” does not apply to people who hold political views that are abhorrent to us.

Expanding the Torah’s case scenarios into other areas of our lives, do you have friends of the opposite political view? Do you often have such people in your home? Would you approach a person with ideological beliefs very different from your own in the cafeteria at work or at Shabbat Kiddush, or would you avoid contact with them? How would you feel if your adult child brought home a potential partner of the opposite political persuasion?

It is easier to live in our silos, having our own views affirmed in every conversation and in the news media we consume. But what of the command to love our neighbor as ourselves, to be ready to reach out to the other without hesitation, recognizing that their fundamental needs and concerns are no different from our own?

The Pardes Center for Judaism and Conflict Resolution has engaged hundreds of synagogues, schools, campuses, and Jewish organizations around the world in recalling the events of the 9th of Adar, when, approximately 2,000 ago, the famously peaceful disagreements of the House of Hillel and the House of Shammai turned destructive and even violent.

This year, let us use the 9th of Adar (March 7) as a reminder, even in the midst of our impassioned work for justice, to see those on the “other side” as human, just like us.

eilberg-rabbi-amy-WEB
Rabbi Amy Eilberg

Rabbi Amy Eilberg is the director of the Pardes Rodef Shalom Communities Program. She can be reached at rebamy@eilberg.com.