Coming to the Aid of Your Enemy

Contemporary essayist Steve Goodier tells a beautiful story about his 11 year old son, Robert, who was being bullied at the school bus stop by some older boys. Steve called the school principal and was told that the school would call the boys’ parents. He was also advised to call the police. Steve wasn’t sure what he would do, but asked the principal to hold off calling the boys’ parents.

The following day Robert glanced out the window and saw the two bullies standing outside the house waiting for him to step out. “Those are the guys who beat me up!” said Robert in alarm. Steve was deciding what to say to them when his wife Bev stepped in. She opened the door and invited the boys in for some ice cream!

The boys seemed a bit confused, but, being teenagers they shrugged their shoulders and accepted the offer. Once inside, Bev introduced herself, her husband, and their younger son. “And, of course you know Robert,” she said. She even introduced them to the family dog.

They sat around the table eating ice cream, and Bev drew them into a conversation. Eventually she mentioned that she understood that there had been some problems at the bus stop.  She suggested that there were perhaps some misunderstandings that could be talked about, and that afterwards they could all be friends. The boys agreed, and they continued talking as they finished their ice cream. The troubles at the bus stop ceased, and never occurred again.

I have to admire the wisdom of this mother in helping her son to reconcile with these two older boys. Had the parents followed the advice of the school principal and called the police, it may have stopped the behavior but intensified the feelings of hatred that the older boys felt toward their son. It made me think of the verse in our Torah reading for this week – “If you see your enemy’s donkey laying under a burden, you shall not pass by. You must raise the donkey with him.” Lending your enemy a hand does the same thing that inviting the boys for ice cream does – it allows your adversary to catch a glimpse of your humanity, to see you as a person, not simply as a target of ones hatred.

There is a similar verse in Deuteronomy which reads, “If you see your brother’s donkey or ox fallen on the road, do not ignore it; you must help him raise it.” Surely it is much more difficult to go to the aid of an enemy than it is to go to the aid of a friend or brother. It is easier, and more natural, to stop to help our friend. But such is human nature that we might not always want to attend to the plight of our brother.  We might be tempted to turn the other way, or to hide when a friend needs our help. Therefore the Torah commands us to reach out to a friend in need, as well as to our enemy who requires help.

But be it coming to the aid of a friendwhose donkey is laying on the road under a burden, or coming to the aid of an enemywhose donkey is laying on the road under a burden, we must not forget that there is a third party in this equation – the donkey! It is the donkey that is really suffering, laying under a heavy load, unable to raise itself. How could we let our animosity toward another person get in the way of helping a suffering animal? The animal has done us no harm. Should our hatred toward its owner stop us from relieving its pain? The rabbis of the Talmud maintain that this verse comes to teach us that preventing suffering of animals is a divine law from the Torah.

 Innocent third parties often are the ones to suffer the most when people become enemies or hold grudges against one another. Think of the suffering of children of divorced parents who hate one another so much that the children they both love suffer tremendously. Think of the children of estranged siblings who never get to develop relationships with their cousins. Think of the suffering of ordinary citizens when political leaders and their parties view each other as enemies and cannot work together. If the rabbis of the Talmud are concerned about the suffering of a donkey when two people are enemies, how much more so should we be concerned about the suffering of innocent human beings caught between people who will not work together because of hatred?

The New Testament claims, “You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy. I say, “Love your enemies……” Although Hebrew Scriptures never teaches that one should love one’s enemies – a goal perhaps too lofty to achieve in real life – it does not teach us to hate our enemies either. Rather, the Book of Proverbs gives the following advice, “If your enemy is hungry/give him bread to eat/ If he is thirsty, give him water to drink/ You will be heaping live coals on his head/and G-d will reward you.” Proverbs is telling us that the best way to channel one’s natural impulse to hurt an enemy or to see them suffer is to be kind to them. 

Or, invite them in for ice cream.

Shabbat Shalom