Mishpatim 5778

D'var Torah | Exodus

The Torah requires that Israelites even help an enemy unburden his animal (Exodus 23:5). To be sure, this is both the humane treatment of animals and a vehicle for turning an enemy into a friend. But the case assumes that Israelites might hate one another, as the Hebrew text indicates. An enemy is one who hates you. This is perplexing since elsewhere (Leviticus 19:17) the Torah demands that no Israelite should harbor hate for another Israelite. Thus the Torah assumes precisely that which it forbids!


Maimonides was well aware of the problem. In his articulation of a code of Jewish law called the Mishneh Torah, he provides a solution. Writing at the end of his presentation of the Laws of the Murderer (13:14), he says: “One may ask how is it that there is ‘one whom you hate’ when the Torah states ‘You shall not hate your brother in your heart?’ On this the Rabbis say: this applies to one who saw another commit a transgression, warned him, but without response. In this case, it is permitted to hate the transgressor until he repents.”   In other words, the general expectation of the Torah is that enmity between Israelites is forbidden. Yet there is a specific exception. Israelites are allowed to “hate” transgressors up to the time the transgressors have changed their behavior and have righted the wrong they committed. And this is the case that the Torah had in mind.


But Maimonides does not stop here. He goes on to explain that: “Nevertheless, if such a person is found in difficulty over an overloaded animal, he must be assisted.” Even though the animal belongs to an unrepentant transgressor, you are duty bound to render assistance to him in relieving the animal. Of course the presumption here is that while you may hate the man, the animal is still in pain. So out of concern for the animal, you must intervene. Yet this is not Maimonides’ justification. He writes: “For the Torah was considerate of each Jewish soul – just or unjust – since it is assumed that fundamentally there is none who does not admit of the basis of belief in God” (translation by Philip Cohen).


Because each and every Jew holds a shared view of God, each Jew – regardless of merit – is entitled to support and assistance. Thus Maimonides explains the foundation of the Scriptural law and, at the same time, makes a striking point about Jewish unity.


Words to Live By

What lies behind you and what lies ahead of you pales in comparison to what lies inside you.

– Ralph Waldo Emerson

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