“Transforming an Enemy Into a Friend”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

This past Thursday and Friday marked Rosh Chodesh Elul, the beginning of the new month of Elul, the month that leads in to the High Holidays. Tradition states that the acronym of “Elul” reminds us of the verse “Ah’nee l’doh’dee v’doh’dee lee,” (Song of Song 6:3) “I am to my beloved and my beloved is to me.” Elul is a time when “G-d is in the field,” when G-d is considered especially close and accessible, waiting for our repentance.

Following on the timely motif of repentance, this coming week’s parasha, parashat Kee Teitzei, contains a theme that allows us to focus on a profoundly important principle with respect to Teshuva, even though on the surface the issue does not seem to have much to do with repentance.

The Talmud tells us that repentance during the High Holidays achieves forgiveness only for sins committed between a person and the A-lmighty. However, forgiveness for sins committed between fellow human beings needs to be accomplished on a personal basis.

A most profound Torah insight into interpersonal relations is found in this week’s parasha. On the surface, it appears to deal merely with the Torah’s sensitivity towards animals. Deuteronomy 22:4 reads: “Lo tir’eh et chah’mor ah’chee’chah oh shoh’roh nof’lim bah’deh’rech, v’hit’ah’lahm’tah may’hem–ha’kaym tah’kim eeh’mo,” You shall not see the donkey of your brother or his ox fall on the way, and you look aside. You must load them with him. This mitzvah, which is known as the mitzvah of T’ee’nah, requires one to help the owner of an animal when the animal’s load is falling.

An interesting parenthetical observation is the comment of the Sifrei cited by Rashi, indicating that the master of the animal may not say to the person who is trying to be helpful, “Since it’s your mitzvah, you do it. I’ll stand aside and watch you.” After all, the verse clearly says to load the animal “with him”–with the owner.

The mitzvah of T’ee’nah, of securing a load that is falling, parallels another mitzvah P‘ree’kah–unloading–that is found in parashat Mishpatim, Exodus 23:5: “Kee tir’eh chah’mor so’nah’ah’cha roh’vaytz tah’chat mah’sah’oh, v’chah’dol’tah may’ah’zov loh? Ah’zov tah’ah’zov ee’moh,” When you see the donkey of your enemy falling under his load, would you refrain from helping him? You must help him.

The Talmud in tractate Baba M’tziah 32b has a fascinating discussion of these two mitzvot. The sages ask, which of these two mitzvot takes precedence, T‘eeh’nah, loading, or P‘ree’kah, unloading? Clearly unloading, since it involves tza’ar ba’alei chayim, the concern of not causing undue pain to an animal.

The Talmud justifies the priority of unloading through the following analysis. Both unloading and loading involve the basic mitzvah of helping one’s neighbor. However, P‘ree’kah, unloading, is a double mitzvah, helping one’s neighbor and preventing unnecessary pain to an animal.

The Talmud then asks a question that seems almost to be a set up, “Ohev lif’rok v’so’nay lit’on?” What do we do when we are faced with two animals, the animal of one’s friend that needs to be unloaded, and the animal of one’s enemy that needs to be loaded, which has priority? At first glance, we would clearly say lif’rok, unloading, since it’s always a double mitzvah. However, the Talmud concludes: “mitzvah b’sonay,” that if the friend understands what’s going on, then the priority is to load an enemy’s donkey. Why? Because by helping an enemy, a person has an opportunity to overcome enmity, and convert an enemy into a friend.

But why should that be? After all, to unload is a double mitzvah, and the animal is suffering. With startling clarity, our rabbis imply that enemies are also “animals” in pain, and relieving human pain always takes priority over an animal’s pain.

Many are familiar with the aphorism cited in Pirkei Avot, Ethics of our Fathers 4:1, “Ay’zeh’hu gee’bor?” Who is a hero? Who is powerful? they ask. “Ha’ko’vaish et yitzro,” He who controls his temper. A less well-known version of Ethics of our Fathers, known as Avot of Rabbi Natan 23 also asks, “Ay’zeh’hu gee’bor sheh’ba’geeborim?” Who is the greatest hero? Who is the most powerful? “Me sheh’oh’seh sohn’oh o’ha’voh,” one who is able to convert an enemy into a friend.

As we enter the month of Elul, these edifying statutes are most important to us. After all, these are the relationships to which we must attend in anticipation of the High Holy days.

May you be blessed.