“Transforming an Enemy into a Friend”
(updated and revised from Kee Teitzei 5762-2002)

by, Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

We are now well into the month of אֱלוּל, Elul, the month that leads into the special times of the High Holidays.

Tradition states that the acronym of “E-l-u-l” reminds us of the verse,

(Song of Songs 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 the Al-mighty is considered especially close and accessible, waiting for the “return” of His beloved children

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

The Talmud (Yoma, 86b), declares that repentance during the High Holidays, achieves forgiveness only for sins committed between a person and the Al-mighty. 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: לֹא תִרְאֶה אֶת חֲמוֹר אָחִיךָ אוֹ שׁוֹרוֹ, נֹפְלִים בַּדֶּרֶךְ, וְהִתְעַלַּמְתָּ מֵהֶם, הָקֵם תָּקִים עִמּוֹ , 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 טְעִינָהT’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 Sifre 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 known as פְּרִיקָהp’ree’kah–unloading, that is found in parashat Mishpatim, Exodus 23:5 כִּי תִרְאֶה חֲמוֹר שֹׂנַאֲךָ רֹבֵץ תַּחַת מַשָּׂאוֹ, וְחָדַלְתָּ מֵעֲזֹב לוֹ, עָזֹב תַּעֲזֹב עִמּוֹ, 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 צַעַר בַּעֲלֵי חַיִים, 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, אוֹהֵב לְפְרוֹק וְשׂוֹנֵא לְטְעוֹן? 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 לְפְרוֹק, unloading, since it is always a double mitzvah. However, the Talmud concludes: מִצְוָה בְּשׂוֹנֵא, 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, unloading 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, אֵיזֶהוּ גִבּוֹר? הַכּוֹבֵשׁ אֶת יִצְרוֹ Who is a hero? Who is powerful? they ask–he who controls his temper. A less well-known version of Ethics of Our Fathers, known as Avot of Rabbi Natan 23, also asks, אֵיזֶהוּ גִבּוֹר? מִי שֶׁעוֹשֶֹה שֹוֹנְאוֹ אוֹהֲבוֹ ,  Who is the greatest hero? Who is the most powerful? One who is able to convert an enemy into a friend!

As we enter the month of Elul, these edifying statutes are of critical importance. After all, these are the relationships to which we must attend in anticipation of the High Holy days. NOW is the precise time for all to be heroic!

May you be blessed.