Wednesday, January 26, 2011


Dr. Abner Weiss, Rabbi



         If you see your enemy’s ox lying under its burden, you shall forbear (ve-chadaltah) to pass him by (mei-azov lo). You shall surely release it with him (azov ta’azov imo). (Ex. 23:4).

I have based my translation of this verse on the Jewish Publication Society version. The plain meaning of the text is not obvious. The translator faces a number of problems. The Hebrew verb azav occurs three times in our verse. But it can mean “leave” or “help”. When it is doubled (azov ta’azov), it can mean, “you shall surely help [him]” or “you shall relieve [it with him].”

The Netziv, Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Berlin, resolves the dilemma by making the following comment: “The usage of the word azav in the first clause of the verse is to leave,
 i.e. You may not leave him. The doubled azov ta’azov in the second clause uses the verb azav as azar and simply means, you shall surely help him.”

However, Targum Onkelos, the classic Aramaic rendition of the Torah, which is printed in all standard rabbinic versions of the Torah, and is regularly studied by conscientious students, renders the text radically differently: ”When you see the ox of the one you hate, sagging under its load, and you resist [ve-chadaltah] unloading it, you shall surely let go what is in your heart against him (azov ta’azov imo), and unload with him.”

Onkelos takes the verb ve-chadaltah to be descriptive, rather than prescriptive (“and you are resisting” rather than “you shall desist.”) He thus disagrees with the Netziv, who writes,” It is a positive commandment to desist from leaving him [in the lurch] and to proceed on one’s way”. And Onkelos takes the doubled azov ta’azov as a psychological injunction to definitely let go of the hatred in your heart.

Our understanding of our text is further complicated by a parallel verse: You shall not see your brother’s [achikhah] donkey or ox, falling on the way and hide yourself from them. You shall surely lift {them] up with him. (Deut.22:4). The Sifrei, the midrash halachah on Deuteronomy, rightly raises the following question: “This verse refers only to the ox of your brother [achikhah]. How do we know [that the law applies to] your enemy also? Because it [the Torah] had [already] referenced, ‘your enemy’s ox (Ex 23:4). If this is so, why does the verse [here] have to state achikhah [your brother]? [Obviously, if you are obliged to help your enemy, you are certainly obliged to assist your brother!].

Sifrei’s answer is enlightening. “The first verse teaches us that the Torah was elating to the human inclination to evil,” an explanation echoed in the Talmud (Bava Metzi’a 32b). Rabbi Zalman Sorotzkin spells this notion out. “In order to assist him, you must join him in performing the task, and you will have to communicate with him. It is very difficult to talk to one whom one hates, and one’s inclination tempts one to resist helping him. It is for this reason that the Torah comes to command one to transcend one’s evil inclination and to surely help him.”

Rabbi Zalman Sorotzkin adds a significant observation. The Torah’s injunction to assist one’s enemy comes before the injunction to assist one’s brother. The Torah is reminding us that the person you hate remains your brother. “Do not hate the Edomite [although he has harmed you], for he is your brother. Do not hate the Egyptian [although he brutalized you, murdered your children and enslaved you], for you were strangers in his land.” (Deut. 23:8). While hatred divides you, you are united by your common humanity. You are equally vulnerable to pain and suffering. You may be tempted to overlook and even to gloat over the distress of one whom you hate, but remember that you are also vulnerable, and must overcome that temptation. Rabbi Shemu’el ha-Katan was chosen to add a paragraph to the Amidah prayer precisely because his mantra was, “Do not rejoice in the calamity of your enemy.”

Our text teaches us another vitally important lesson. It is, as Onkelos explained, that hatred is a burden that we are commanded to release from our hearts.  We often imagine that the negative feelings we hold about another person has an effect on that person, that we are punishing him or her for the suffering caused us.  Consciously or unconsciously we convince ourselves that our aloofness and anger will hurt them.  But it rarely hurts those for whom we bear hatred.  It simply ties us to events of long ago and keeps us mired in our misery. 

I have frequently counseled people who remember every single slight that was done to them decades ago and who constantly relive the pain and humiliation of those slights.  The reality is that those they are avoiding have long ago stopped caring while they remain consumed by their bitterness and struggling under the burdens of the hatreds in their hearts.  The Torah wisely counsels azov ta’azov –let it go, let it go.  Relieve your hearts of the burden and the bitterness of your hatreds.  You will be helping yourself far more than the one you hate by resolving your issues with him or her.  Difficult as it may seem, it is better to talk and strive for resolution than to be eaten up by unrelenting bitterness.

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