Lift Up Their Ox
Haters versus Enemies
My mom loves to tell the story that when I was in elementary school, I would often come home and complain about “stupid questions” that other kids would ask. As a child, I didn’t have much patience. I did not hide my frustration well. It was low stakes though.
As an adult, I still struggle intensely with this. Reacting less strongly to others is at the top of my (long) list of personal work. Being in relationship with others has higher stakes now, and I know that it’s part of my development as a human being. Ultimately I found that as I let others’ words and decisions affect me so much, it made them “enemies” in my mind, heart, and body.
That feeling really does get embodied. In a Finnish1 study from a few years back, contempt and anger most commonly manifest in the torso, throat, and very strongly in the head. Think back to a moment where you interacted with a perceived enemy. Can you feel the feeling? If not, keep it in mind as you move forward. Noticing and getting curious about where our emotions make themselves known physically is vital to our own growth in life.
When we “see” enemies in the world, our instinct is to distance ourselves from them. That feeling bubbles up in us. It’s only natural. It’s also a helpful cue. The Torah has a similar idea. In this week’s portion, we read the following (Exodus 23:4-5):
When you encounter your enemy’s ox or donkey wandering, you must take it back to him. When you see the donkey of your enemy lying under its burden and would refrain from raising it, you must nevertheless raise it with him.
It’s important to note that in the Hebrew, although translated the same, the Hebrew word for enemy is different. The first verse uses איבך, related to enmity toward someone. The second verse uses שנאך, hatred toward someone. Why the difference?
If you read closely, you’ll notice that for the first verse, you’re only returning the lost animal. There’s no encounter with the person. That’s the enemy that breeds enmity. In the second verse, you’re working with this “enemy” in tandem to lift up the animal. According to Rabbi Yaakov Tzvi Mecklenburg2, hatred (from the second verse) is internal and enmity (from the first verse) is externally damaging.
In his eyes, there are real enemies in the world, those that might cause you real harm. Those people are potentially dangerous. For that reason, you are obligated to help their animal but not put yourself in a situation that puts you in harm’s way, which is why the text uses the word associated with enmity. Every individual needs to ascertain who falls into that category for them.
He continues that there are also enemies who are in your life to help you shape your internal work. That is why you have to help lift up the animal together. According to Rabbi Mecklenburg, you need to see your “hated one”, the more internally felt one, face to face. Perhaps it may change how you feel.
That’s why many commentators suggest that while this section of the Torah deals primarily with interpersonal situations, they’re a cover for the intrapersonal work each of us has to do. That work gets back to stupid questions and emotions in our body.
Everything we do registers within us. Every human being feels emotions and those emotions manifest physically. Every one of us has those we perceive as haters and enemies. The work is on us to figure it out. The “stupid questions” I noticed as a kid still bubble up for me but it’s different now. All we can control is ourselves. So get curious and pay attention. The next time you “see your enemy’s donkey,” the one where it’s safer for you, maybe move closer instead of distancing yourself.
Shabbat Shalom and Happy Weekend!
Author of his most well known work Ha’ketav V’hakaballah-Germany 18/19th centuries