As we will repeatedly concede during our tefillot over the coming awesome days, it will be up to God to decide much of what will happen in the coming year. But we should not underestimate for a second how much is up to us to decide.
This past year was characterized by incredibly unpleasant, painful, and alienating discourse, around Shabbat tables, online, and almost anywhere. The landscape of 5778’s waning days is strewn with broken friendships, strained families, communities riven apart, and a civil society that is civil in name only.
5779 though, is in our hands. I have found the following Talmudic discussion to be helpful and encouraging, and I hope you will too:
The Torah records two pretty similar mitzvot, one in Shmot and one in Dvarim. In Shmot we’re commanded to help our enemy unload his animal when we see that animal collapsed beneath its burden. In Dvarim, we’re commanded to help our brother reload his animal when the animal’s burden has fallen.
The Talmud puts the two mitzvot into the blender, and then asks: what if you simultaneously encounter your brother’s animal which is collapsed and in need of unloading, and your enemy’s animal which whose burden has fallen and is in need of reloading? Which takes priority? The Talmud’s answer: The priority is to help your enemy to reload. “But why?” the other voice in the Talmud demands. The collapsed-and-still-loaded animal is suffering, and by Torah law we are directed to prevent the suffering of animals! Shouldn’t the mitzva of unloading automatically take precedence over the reloading? “Yes”, the Talmud concedes, this line of reasoning would ordinarily be correct, but not in this instance. In this instance the priority is to unload with your enemy as a means of vanquishing your natural inclination to ignore your enemy’s plight. Vanquishing your own nature is deemed an uber-mitzvah, an activity of transcendent worth.
A question though: Exactly which aspect of his human nature is the person being asked to defeat here? Hatred of his enemy? Not a bad one to work on, but it happens not to be the one the Torah is discussing here.
The word for enemy that the Torah uses here is שונאך (son’acha), which we instinctively translate as “someone whom you hate”. But as Torah Temima points out, the Biblical word for someone whom you hate is שנואך (snoo’acha). שונאך (son’acha) by contrast, is “a person who hates you”. Meaning, that what the Talmud is prioritizing as an uber-mitzvah is not the act of vanquishing your inclination to ignore the plight of someone whom you hate (as admirable as this is.) It is rather the act of vanquishing of an entirely different – and much more significant – negative inclination, that of refusing to come to the aid of someone who hates you, in your belief that no act of kindness on your part will ever change that person’s feeling about you. That no matter what you do, it won’t make any difference; there will be no equal and opposite reaction on the other side. This is the human inclination that threatens to trap all of us forever in enmity and bitter opposition. When we believe that our fellow human beings are incapable of change and that we are helpless in the face of minds that have already been made up, we will also believe that it’s completely futile to try to build bridges, or to extend ourselves with decency and kindness in the spirit of shared humanity.
And it gets worse. For when multiplied outward, it leads us to the ineluctable conclusion that working to effect positive change in the world is the most futile activity imaginable. For if humans can’t change, nothing can change. So why should I even bother? This is why the Talmud identifies this inclination as the one that we have to grab by the throat and subdue. For when we are willing to believe that change is possible, that sharp edges can be softened, that gestures of kindness and civility can elicit response in kind, then we can restore the bonds of our friendships, the wholeness of our communities, and our inspiration to keep working for a better world.
This is the crisis of faith that we need to overcome today. Not a crisis of faith in God. The crisis of faith in humanity.
Avot D’Rebbi Natan declares: “Who is the mightiest of the mighty? The person who turns someone who hates him, into someone who loves him.” We can do this. We can fix this. One human encounter at a time.