The Rabbi's Study

On Tisha b’Av, Connection Conquers Hate

The following essay originally appeared on the American World Jewish Service’s website.

Tisha B’Av, the ninth day of the month of Av, is the major day of communal mourning in the Jewish calendar. This date commemorates the destruction of the First and Second Temples in Jerusalem in 586 B.C.E. and 70 C.E., as well as a large number of other disasters said to have befallen the Jews on this date throughout history.

The rabbis of the Talmud blamed these tragedies on sinat chinam—baseless hatred. They tell an elaborate tale of two enemies, Kamtza and bar Kamtza, whose feud over a small matter ultimately boils over and ignites the war between the Jews and the Romans that felled the first Temple.

It’s often simple to diagnose the cause of such hatred but finding solutions can be much more complicated. How can enemies put aside their grievances? And how can we prevent the wide chasms between people that so plague our world today?

I believe one answer can be found in a mitzvah commanded among a litany of civil laws in the Book of Exodus. The Torah teaches: “If you see a donkey of someone you hate struggling with its burden, and you are hesitant to help that person—you must help that person.”[1]

On the surface, this may seem to be a law about common decency—if you see someone in trouble, you’re obligated to help. However, the ancient rabbis of the Jewish tradition tell a story that shows that this law has a much deeper effect—both on the helper and the person being helped. In a midrash, a folkloric teaching inspired by the text of the Torah, the rabbis taught:

Two donkey-drivers who hated one another were walking on a road. One of the donkeys collapsed, and the other donkey-driver just passed by seeing that it had collapsed under its burden. The second donkey-driver said: Is it not written in the Torah, “If you see a donkey of someone you hate struggling with its burden, and you are hesitant to help that person—you must help that person”? What did the second donkey-driver do? He turned back to help the other man reload his donkey, and then accompanied him on the way. One began to converse with the other, and helped loosen here, lift up there, tighten here, until he reloaded the animal with him. They found that they had made peace between themselves. The one whose donkey was struggling said to himself: “I never understood why this person hated me! See how compassionate he was with me when he saw my donkey and me in distress!” At this point, they went into an inn and ate and drank together, and they grew to love one another.[2]

At the heart of this story is a powerful word that stands out in the text because it’s typically used in a very different context. The text says that one driver “accompanied” the other the driver—melaveyhu, from the word livuyi. In Jewish tradition this term is most closely associated with funerals, levaya, the moment when we honor the deceased by accompanying the body to the gravesite. This accompaniment is seen as the ultimate act of kindness because the deceased can never return the favor.

The story of the donkey drivers makes it clear that accompaniment is also a powerful antidote to sinat chinam—with the capacity to turn enemies into friends. It’s still surprising, though, to see that in another midrash this honor and kindness is extended to the archetypal biblical enemy: Pharaoh. The rabbinic collection of Torah commentary called Midrash Tanchumah describes the moment when Pharaoh sends the Israelites out from Egypt as akin to a funeral procession for Pharaoh.[3] Imagine that, in the moment of their own liberation, the Israelites are depicted as extending the archetypical form of honor and kindness to their oppressors.

Viewed in light of the donkey drivers, this is also a gesture of repair. Reading this midrash, we can understand the redemptive power of accompaniment—that when we open our eyes, minds and hearts to truly see another person, it allows for a person to right past wrongs. This midrash is offering a radical re-read of the plain meaning of the text, where Pharaoh’s sending off of the Israelites is a last minute impulsive act by a frustrated dictator. In pushing us to offer accompaniment even to those with whom we completely disagree and may have wronged us in the past, the midrash is implicitly relying on a rabbinic argument called kal v’chomer. If we see the merit of accompanying those who are our enemies, all the more so must we accompany our friends and allies.

Dr. Paul Farmer, professor of public health at Harvard University and co-founder of the human rights organization Partners in Health, teaches about the power of this kind of accompaniment for those we seek to help in our work to promote human rights. He says: “To accompany someone is to go somewhere with him or her, to break bread together, to be present on a journey with a beginning and an end…I’ll share your fate for a while, and by ‘a while’ I don’t mean ‘a little while.’”

Farmer came up with this term (adapted from Haitian creole) to show that doctors working in poor communities must address patients’ social and economic challenges alongside their core medical needs.[4] And AJWS uses this model of accompaniment in its grantmaking. In addition to providing financial support to human rights activists and organizations, AJWS also supports them in other ways, from offering trainings to their staff to creating opportunities to network with other organizations in their countries and worldwide.

Accompaniment is a powerful process through which we work side-by-side with others. Accompaniment gives us the opportunity to be present and seek dignity for others—to recognize and protect their humanity.

Many centuries before the United Nations ratified into its Universal Declaration of Human Rights that “all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights,” the Torah declared that every human is created in the divine image and thus must be treated with respect. If we live our lives in service of this value, perhaps we can overcome the hatred that caused the destruction we mourn on Tisha B’Av. Accompanying one another in this way, we can build a more just and equitable world together.

 

Justin GoldsteinJustin Goldstein serves as the rabbi of Congregation Beth Israel in Asheville, NC. Named by The Forward as one of America’s Most Inspiring Rabbis in 2016, Justin is a fellow with Rabbis Without Borders, and became an AJWS Global Justice Fellow in 2017.

[1] Exodus 23:5

[2] Midrash Tanḥuma Parashat Mishpatim 1

[3] Midrash Tanchumah, Parashat Be’shalach, 1:1

[4] Paul Farmer, Jonathan Weigel, and Bill Clinton. To Repair the World: Paul Farmer Speaks to the Next Generation. 2013.

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