Parashat Mishpatim

January 29, 2022

by Bettijane Eisenpreis

When you encounter your enemy’s ox or ass wandering, you must take it back to him.

When you see the ass of your enemy lying under its burden and would refrain from raising it, you must nevertheless raise it with him.
Exodus 23: 4-5

Parashat Mishpatim is an incredibly rich Torah portion. There are laws regarding slavery, women, spreading rumors, handling money … I could go on and on. So why did I pick these two comparatively insignificant lines about the treatment of animals?

But are they really about the treatment of animals? Substitute “When you find your enemy’s valuable property lying in the road, you must take it back to him and make sure he gets it.” Several things are happening here: First, the Israelites are commanded not to ignore the property lying in the road, in this case a living animal. Second, they must not only return it to the place it came from (take the cow back to the barn, shove it inside, and run) but make sure its owner receives it – whether they like him or not. Third, if the cow is lying in the road and can’t get up, they have to help the owner, whom we know they don’t like, even though this will take a mutual effort.

The Torah uses the word “enemy” twice in two very short verses, forcing us to think about the word. Who is this enemy? The American Heritage Dictionary defines enemy as 1) One that feels malice or hostility toward another; 2) A hostile power or force; a member or unit of such a force; and 3) Something destructive or injurious in its effects.

The enemy the Bible is talking about here seems to fall into the first category – someone you feel malice or hostility to.  He or she isn’t necessarily a bad person; he could be your enemy because your fathers were enemies, or because he comes from a tribe that doesn’t like your tribe. Or maybe he really did something bad, but it was years ago. Although there certainly have been evil people in the world, the majority are neither all good or all bad. In any case, even if you have every reason to dislike him, why take it out on his poor animal? What did the ass or the ox do to you?

When we read these few sentences carefully, we realize the writer has a larger purpose. You see the cow lying in the field and he can’t get up. Or he’s wandering aimlessly in the road and he’s going to be hit by a car if you don’t lead him away. You could steal him, take him for yourself – but that would make you a worse person than your enemy. The only honorable thing to do is to take him back, or if he has fallen and his owner is struggling to help him up, to help the owner, whether or not you like the owner. In the course of this endeavor, you are going to have to speak to the owner – maybe just to say, “Irving, I brought back your cow.” But maybe he’ll say thank you and ask you if you want to come in for a cold drink. Or maybe you’ll start to discuss the weather and that will lead somewhere.

Maybe not. But when two people are working toward the same end – in this case, helping a defenseless animal, stranger things have happened.

The late Archbishop Desmond Tutu made a distinction between “restorative” and “retributive” justice, justice that seeks to make whole versus punishment for punishment’s sake. While Judaism insists that people be held accountable for their sins, this accountability does not last forever. At Yom Kippur, we are to pray to God for forgiveness, but first we must ask forgiveness from our fellow man. If he refuses to forgive us after we have made a good-faith effort, we are “off the hook.” Justice, the Torah is saying, should be restorative, not retributive. The ultimate judge is God, and people who continue to punish their fellow people can become sad, bitter souls.

Who is truly the enemy in this story? Surely it is not the defenseless animal! Maybe it’s not even the animal’s owner. The enemy is the bitterness inside you, and that bitterness can be banished when two people find themselves working together.