Transforming hate into love

We can and should seek to minimize hostility in our lives.

Painting by Pepe Fainberg (photo credit: PEPE FAINBERG)
Painting by Pepe Fainberg
(photo credit: PEPE FAINBERG)
RABBI ALEXANDRI said: Two donkey drivers who hated each other were walking along the road. The donkey of one of them lay down. His fellow passed by and saw that he was lying down under his burden. He said: “Does it not say in the Torah ‘If you see the donkey of him that hates you lying under its burden… you shall surely raise it with him’?” What did he do? He turned back and loaded [the animal] and accompanied [his enemy]. He began to converse with him. He loosened [the straps] a little from one side, lifted [it] from the other side, and strapped on that side until he had reloaded [the donkey] with him.
The result was that they made peace with each other. The other said: “Didn’t I think that he was my enemy? See how he had mercy on me when he saw me and my donkey in dire straits.” The consequence was that they entered an inn and ate and drank together. They developed affection for each other. (Midrash Tanchuma) Virtually everyone knows what it means to have an enemy in one’s life. If one engages with others, if one cares about issues and takes a stand, some relationships will sour. What seems a given in the international arena has its echo interpersonally as well. The Torah assumes that enemies are a painful part of one’s journey in life. In perhaps the classic passage offering a recommended pathway, we find in Exodus: “If you meet your enemy’s ox or his donkey going astray, you shall surely bring it back to him again. If you see the donkey of him that hates you lying under its burden, you shall forbear to pass by him; you shall surely raise it with him.”
As is frequently the case in the Torah, a key value is expressed in a living context. A person happens across either a lost animal belonging to one’s foe or sees him with his animal in distress. The commandment is not to avert one’s eyes, but rather to act by returning the animal or offering to assist with the fallen donkey. The tale told by Rabbi Alexandri is instructive. It acknowledges the very human inclination to pass by. Yet the donkey driver hears the words of Torah urging him to step forward to help. The Torah’s guidance pushes him into an uncomfortable space in order to seize the possibility of renewing a friendship.
This moving passage carries an inspiring message that we should search for openings to recreate and reboot a failed relationship. At even unexpected times and places, life presents opportunities for new beginnings. Acting upon them can have unimagined consequences for new relationships. The presumption seems to be that we can and should seek to minimize hostility in our lives. Healing relationships makes everyone more content, more whole.
Later, in the book of Deuteronomy, we find a parallel passage: “You shall not see your brother’s ox or his sheep driven away, and hide yourself from them; you shall surely bring them back to your brother.”
The 14th century Spanish sage Rabbeinu Bachya comments as follows: “You shall not see your brother’s ox or his sheep driven away”: Here it is said “your brother’s ox,” and in the Mishpatim Torah portion, it is said “your enemy’s ox,” in order to teach you that it is not sufficient to return the lost object but one must also put aside the hatred. This commandment must become the occasion to uproot the hatred from your heart and to stimulate the love of a brother and the feelings of brotherhood. “You must take it back to your brother” – when you return the lost object to him, he will become like your brother.
The rabbis’ assumption is that nothing found in the Torah is superfluous. Since we know already that we are obligated to step forward on behalf of an enemy, surely we would know to behave similarly for a brother or sister! Thus, the passage in Deuteronomy seems unnecessary. Rabbeinu Bachya suggests that both passages are connected and are essential. We should be relentless in our effort to transform an enemy into a brother or sister. Our goal is to attempt the hard work of letting go hatred or anger within ourselves and within others in order to count one less enemy and, hopefully, to develop a new close friend.
Holding onto an enemy shuts us down. The Torah commands a way to reduce or do away with enemies altogether. The aggadic work Avot D’Rabbi Natan suggests that this commandment, if followed, will enable us to soar into strength.
Who is mighty? One who transforms one who hates into one who loves. 
Sheldon Lewis, rabbi emeritus of Congregation Kol Emeth in Palo Alto, California, is the author of ‘Torah of Reconciliation’