If you see your enemy’s ass sagging under its burden, you shall not pass by. You shall surely release it with him. (Exodus 23:5)
In his “Sermon on the Mount”, Jesus got something very wrong.
He preached: “You have heard it said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, ‘Love your enemy also.’” In fact, Judaism never teaches us to hate our enemies. To the contrary, Moses commands us: “Do not hate an Edomite, because he is your brother. Do not hate an Egyptian, for you were strangers in his land.” We are, it turns out, explicitly forbidden by Torah from loathing the very people who enslaved us for hundreds of years.
That said, it is worth noting that, unlike Jesus, Judaism does not ask us to love our enemies. Our tradition views such a request as impractical and, ultimately, unhelpful. As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks notes: “Torah is realistic rather than utopian. Saints apart, we cannot love our enemies, and if we try to, we will eventually pay a high psychological price: we will eventually hate those who ought to be our friends. What the Torah says instead is: when your enemy is in trouble, come to his assistance. That way, part of the hatred will be dissipated. Who knows whether help given may not turn hostility to gratitude and from there to friendship.”
Thus the commandment in this week’s Torah portion, Mishpatim, which obligates us to help our enemy raise his donkey sagging under its heavy burden. What Torah offers, instead of the mere sentiment of love, is the obligation of loving law. Why? Because while you cannot legislate feelings, you can legislate behavior—and this is precisely what Torah strives to do, in every aspect of our lives, through mitzvot.
Two weeks ago, in the aftermath of the party-line vote against the bill to add the words “sexual orientation” and “gender identity” to Idaho’s Human Rights Act, I wrote a piece on my Facebook page on love, law, and social justice that touches on this core difference between Jewish and Christian thought. I’ve posted that essay on my blog, here: http://rabbidanfink.blogspot.com/
Our portion for this week drives home this difference. The Jewish path is one in which behavior drives belief rather than the other way around. As Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson teaches, “The mitzvot speak to that deeper part of our personalities, summoning us to a life of holiness and belonging, shaping our communities to reflect God’s love and concern for all of creation. Rather than being shackled by (our tradition’s) laws, we Jews have celebrated the opportunity to use them to infuse our lives with spirit, passion, and depth. They remain our pathway to our truer selves. And to God.”
In this month that our secular culture gives over to Valentines Day, it is worth remembering that in our tradition, loving feelings are nice--but justice is essential. And in living justice, we pave the way for real love that goes beyond mere words to compassionate deeds.