In today’s political climate of division and anger, the idea of loving our enemies can seem laughable and utterly impossible. In his book Love Your Enemies, Arthur C. Brooks writes that one in six Americans stopped talking to a family member or close friend because of the 2016 election. Brooks explains further:
You might say: “There are some people who are simply beyond the pale. There are millions of awful people in this country who advocate ideas we cannot tolerate. They deserve our contempt, not our love!” I have heard this sentiment from serious journalists, respected academics, and mainstream politicians. I have thought it myself.
Yet he goes on to argue passionately for the value of bridging divides, mending relationships, and finding ways to communicate to our political enemies: I may not agree with you, but what you have to say matters. His philosophy is inspired by his Catholic faith and his learning with the Dalai Lama, bolstered by his academic scholarship, and inspired by the notion that healthy disagreement is the secret to excellence. We don’t have to be happy with what our political enemies are trying to accomplish – we can work against their goals with all the might we can muster. Yet, Brooks argues, we must not treat them with contempt. Like us, our enemies are human; like us, our enemies have minds, our enemies have souls. As different as we are, we are all created b’tzelem Elohim, in the image of G-d.
Brooks articulated these ideas in his book published in 2019, yet this teaching is not new. Our parashah this week, Mishpatim, gives us the same lesson.
When you encounter your enemy’s ox or donkey wandering, you must take it back to him. When you see your enemy’s donkey lying down under its burden and you would refrain from helping your enemy raise his donkey to its feet, you nevertheless must raise his donkey with him.
We might not like our enemies, but we still have to return their lost property; we still have to help them when they are stranded on the side of the road.
The Etz Hayim Torah Commentary explains further:
The Torah commands us neither to love nor to hate our enemy. Generally, the Torah commands behavior, not feelings. Its goal is justice, which is attainable — as opposed to loving everyone, which is an emotion-based attitude that cannot be commanded. We are to avoid malicious acts and treat everyone decently.
Perhaps feeling love towards our enemies is too much to ask. Whether our enemies come from political disagreements, bad business dealings, broken friendships, or unmade amends, it can be impossible – even in spite of our deepest desires – to change the way we feel about them emotionally. Even so, we can refrain from malicious acts towards them. We can treat our enemies decently, because we can treat everyone decently. We can attain the goal of living a just life, a life centered on humility and acceptance, authenticity and connection — and as part of recovery, we can live justly in all our affairs, even when our enemies are involved.
As we move towards this Shabbat together, and as we struggle to stay afloat in the turbulent seas of our political climate, may we all be blessed to attain the goal of justice. May we accept the challenging truth that sometimes we passionately disagree with others, and they passionately disagree with us. May we be open to the possibility of letting go of the need to love, and letting go of the need to hate. And may we continue to refrain from malicious acts and treat everyone decently, friend and enemy alike.
Brooks, Arthur C. Love Your Enemies: How Decent People Can Save America From the Culture of Contempt. Broadside Books: New York, 2019.
Lieber, David, et al., eds. Etz Hayim: Torah and Commentary. Rabbinical Assembly: New York, 2001.
Morrow, Lance. (April 3, 2019.) “Healing the Divisions in Our Country,” The New York Times. Accessed February 18, 2020.