Rabbinic Intern Congregation Beth Hatikvah Summit, New Jersey Parashat Mishpatim
This week’s parsha is Mishpatim (“laws”), in which G-d instructs Moshe of the aforementioned laws which the Hebrews will follow as part of their covenant. These laws, laid out over the course of a couple of chapters, cover a wide array of topics, some very relevant for our contemporary times and some perhaps less so. Moshe learns, for example, what is supposed to happen when a person insults their parents or when someone commits bribery - issues we still deal with today. On the other hand, G-d also clarifies how the Israelites need to handle attempted sorcery and dictates who pays for the damage an ox or a donkey sustains when it falls into an open pit that someone dug and forgot to fill it in. These are interesting scenarios for sure, but maybe not so directly applicable to our modern lives.
One law that would appear at first glance to fall in the “interesting” rather than “relevant” category comes in the fourth verse of Shemot/Exodus 23: Ki tifga shor oyiv’cha o chamoro to’eh ha’sheiv t’shivenu lo (כי תפגע שור איבך או חמרו תעה השב תשיבנו לו), “When you encounter your enemy’s ox or donkey wandering around, you must return it to him.” This seems simple enough, and given the subject matter, it also seems to be largely irrelevant. After all, most people don’t have real, actual enemies, and even if they do, most people don’t have oxen or donkeys whose whereabouts they need to be concerned with.
But if we look a bit closer, we find something really important. The end of the verse says ha’sheiv t’shivenu lo (השב תשיבנו לו), which I translated above as “you must return it to him.” More precisely though, that repetition of the Hebrew root shuv (ש.ו.ב, “to return”) we see in ha’sheiv t’shivenu lo adds a strong emphasis, and it might be better translated as something like “you’ve really, seriously got to return it to him.” And remember, this strong injunction G-d gives to the Hebrews here is about returning a missing animal to a person’s enemy, someone they totally despise. So what are we to make of this? One possibility I’d like to offer is that it’s a reminder that we need to try our best to treat all people we encounter with basic respect, courtesy, and dignity, even those we dislike or have problems with. We are all human beings, imbued with some of that initial Divine Spark and as such, deserving of kindness and compassion. So, the next time you see your enemy’s ox or donkey wandering down the street, don’t just look the other way - maybe try chasing after it.