One of the beautiful aspects of our Torah is the fact that it deals with real-life issues, and with real and thus imperfect people. Nezikin, damages, the traditional focus of Jewish study, is replete with laws of civil and criminal negligence, torts, contract law, property rights and the like. Its underlying assumption is that man, left to his own devices, cannot be trusted and will lie, cheat and steal for his own benefit. The Talmud (Bava batra 168a) declares that almost all are guilty of theft in one form or another.
We thus have much Talmudic discussion and legal precedent that is based on understanding the psychology of liars. The Torah understands man's evil inclination well, and instead of demanding that we vanquish it, helps us to channel it for productive purposes. By doing so, we can convert our desire for money into economic growth, or our sexual drive into a loving relationship.
“The Torah speaks to our evil inclination”. So declare our Sages in explaining the opening laws of Parshat Ki Teze. After a cooling-off period, the Torah, allows Jewish soldiers to marry a non-Jewish woman taken captive in war. While clearly not happy with such an outcome, the Torah understood that this approach is better than totally forbidding such a relationship, which might lead to a much worse alternative, that of rape and wanton immorality.
Harnessing and controlling our yetzer hara is a theme that runs throughout the parsha, especially as it relates to those whom we dislike. Despite the prohibition of hating our fellow Jews (or anyone else, unless they are truly evil), this, too, is an unfortunate reality of life. “When a man has two wives, one whom he loves and one whom he hates, he must not give the son of the beloved wife birthright preference over the first born who is the son of the unloved wife” (Devarim 21:15-17).
In societies that allow polygamy, it is no surprise if the status of a child reflects the status of his mother. Early biblical history bears witness to this crucial point. “And he [Yaakov] loved Rachel more than Leah, and G-d saw that Leah was hated” (Breisheet 29:30-31). Our rabbis did not hesitate to claim that the favoritism shown by Yaakov for Rachel's son Yosef was the cause of our descent to Egypt. Tragically, Yaakov was unaware of this as-yet-unrevealed law.
It is to be expected that those guilty of capital offences are subject to all kinds of abuse. Thus, the Torah tells us that precisely such a person is to receive a proper burial, and this is the source of the Jewish obligation to bury as soon as possible. “And if a man committed a sin worthy of death, you must bury him on the same day” (Devarim 21:22-23). Shockingly, the Talmud invokes the verse and “you shall love your neighbour as yourself” to teach us that we must carry out the death penalty in the most humane way possible, never losing sight of the fact that the one before us was created in the image of G-d.
The Torah even goes one step further. “If you see your brother's donkey or ox fallen under its load, you must not ignore it; you must surely help him to lift it up again” (Devarim 22:4). A similar law is recorded in sefer Shemot; however, instead of expressing concern for the donkey of your “brother”, the Torah insists we help someone “you hate” (Shemot 23:5). The way to overcome hatred is by actually helping the one you hate. Not only may it help you reduce your resentment towards him, it can make big improvements in the attitude of your enemy towards yourself.
Helping those whom you actually dislike, regardless of whether that dislike is caused by their sinning or because you have failed in your obligation to love your neighbour as yourself, is so fundamental that it can actually override normative Jewish law. Faced with the choice of either helping to load or to unload an animal’s burden, Jewish law stipulates that we must first unload. Why make an animal suffer any longer? Nonetheless, if it is your enemy who is loading the animal, you must help him first, despite any pain that the other, neglected animal might endure. Breaking down any hatred between humans is more important; the animal will have to wait a few minutes.
We all rightly—or more likely, wrongly—dislike some people. It is on them that we must focus our chesed. As we approach the Yamim Noraim, let us resolve to help our enemies, thus enabling us to fully observe the command to love our neighbour as ourselves.