Thursday, August 15, 2013

Parshat Ki Teitzei: Learning Humanity from Animals

Would you help someone who had wronged you? Someone who you didn't like? An "enemy" of yours? Why or why not? What is it that sets us up to become "enemies" with another person in our lives? What is it that makes us dislike another person so that we can't stand them, can't be around them? 

The portion this week, from Deuteronomy, includes one of the Torah's more famous lessons, "If you see your fellow's ox or sheep gone astray, do not ignore it; you must take it back to your fellow. If your fellow does not live near you or you do not know who he is, you shall bring it home and it shall remain with you until your fellow claims it; then you shall give it back to him. You shall do the same with his ass; you shall do the same with his garment; and so too shall you do with anything that your fellow loses and you find: you must not remain indifferent." Deuteronomy 23:1-3 

Not unlike this is a passage in the book of Exodus, (23:4-5) where the only difference is that it is your "enemy's" animal, not that of you "fellow" that you must help.

The Talmud of course imagines the obvious problem - what do you do if you see both the animal of your fellow and the animal of your enemy both lost at the same time? Who do you help first? You may have guessed it, you help your enemy first. And why is that? We are taught, "in assisting your enemy you remember your common humanity and forget your animosity."

That is a great lesson about not only how to banish hatred and strife from a relationship, but also why such things enter into a relationship in the first - we forget our common humanity. We forget all the fears and worries and self-doubts and other faults human beings have that can make others so irritating, so disrespectful, so distasteful to us -- all those same issues we just naturally assume everyone else will accept in us when they meet us.

By doing something that reminds you of that, you jar yourself out of what is ultimately selfish thinking, "this person lives their life solely to annoy me" and replace it with a broader mindset, "maybe there is more to this person than I ever considered before."

We so often ascribe to our pets and other animals anthropomorphic traits. Here, the Torah finds in animals a way in which to draw out the best about who we can be as human beings.  Not a bad lesson for this time of reflection and repentance before the New Year either.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Benson

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