Help Your Enemy's Donkey

Help Your Enemy's Donkey
Donkey holding in its mouth a book called Ego is the Enemy

It’s a good time to talk about donkeys. By the rhythm of the Jewish calendar. And also by the discordance of political polarization.

On the Jewish calendar of Torah readings, we’re between the Ten Commandments (Parshat Yitro) and the Covenant Law Code (Parshat Mishpatim). Both establish laws protecting working animals. But they do even more than that. Classical commentators say they also set out a psychology of enemies and friends. And then tell us how to turn enemies into friends.

The Overloaded Donkey

Biblical law actually has two sets of guidelines for helping an overburdened donkey.

כִּי־תִרְאֶה חֲמוֹר שֹׂנַאֲךָ רֹבֵץ תַּחַת מַשָּׂאוֹ וְחָדַלְתָּ מֵעֲזֹב לוֹ עָזֹב תַּעֲזֹב עִמּוֹ׃

If you see your enemy’s donkey lying down under its burden, and you are tempted to refrain from loosening the burden—definitely you should loosen it with him! (Exodus 23:5, translation mine)

לֹא־תִרְאֶה אֶת־חֲמוֹר אָחִיךָ אוֹ שׁוֹרוֹ נֹפְלִים בַּדֶּרֶךְ וְהִתְעַלַּמְתָּ מֵהֶם הָקֵם תָּקִים עִמּוֹ׃

Don’t watch your brother’s donkey or ox falling down in the road and then make yourself scarce. Go lift it up with him! (Deuteronomy 22:4, translation mine)

Both verses insist people help a donkey in distress.[1] But the first calls passers-by to help their enemies; the second, to help their friends.

But why—close readers of Torah ask—does the call to help an enemy come first?

Turn your enemy into a friend

Maybe, says one classical Rabbi Alexandri, there’s a hidden teaching about how to turn an enemy into a friend. He explains this with a story.

Two people who despise each other are on a road with their working donkeys.

One donkey, exhausted from its load, stops and lies down.

The other donkey’s owner stops and thinks. “The law says I should help my enemy release his donkey’s burden.” So, the thinker helps their enemy adjust the donkey’s load.

As they work, they talk, “let’s loosen here; let’s tighten here.”

Then the enemy thinks, “This person doesn’t hate me. Look how concerned they were when my donkey and I were in distress.”

So they walk together to the inn, have lunch and a drink, and become the best of friends.[2]

What exactly is the moral of this story? Commentators explain it. If you want to turn an enemy into a friend, do the right thing.[3]  Solve a problem together.[4] When you act as though you care, you may even begin to care.[5]

Learn not to hate your enemy

But maybe there’s another reason the call to help an enemy comes first. Suppose—says the Talmud—you see two donkeys in distress. One belongs your friend. And one belongs to your enemy. Which one should you help first?

You should help your enemy’s donkey. Why? Because you probably don’t want to. Your yetzer hara—your physical and emotional impulses—tell you not to. But, to be a good person, you have to master those impulses. So, try learn to notice them as they arise. And then take every chance you can to work against them. Because it takes a lot of work over a long period of time.

The Shape of Inner Work

Metaphors woven into donkey verses tell you how to work with your impulses.

The first verse speaks of חֲמוֹר שֹׂנַאֲךָ chamor sonacha—the donkey of your enemy. The word חֲמוֹר chamor (donkey) is related to the word חֳמַרְמָר chamarmar, swell up.[6] The word שֹׂנַאֲךָ sonacha (your enemy) can mean “the one you hate.”[7]

What should you do when your own hate swells up? When it becomes too much of a burden? When, perhaps, it fills you with anger, fear, and anxiety? And you dream of doing things your calmer self would find criminal? Loosen up; create some distance between you and your hate.

The second verse speaks of חֲמוֹר אָחִיךָ chamor achicha (donkey of your kin). The word חֲמוֹר chamor is also related to the word חֹמֶר chomer, building clay.[8] The very same clay—according to Isaiah—that God used to form the first human being.[9]

What should you do when chamor achicha—the substance of your kinship, your sense of common humanity—falls to the wayside? When you begin to view your old neighbors with suspicion? Try not to make yourself scarce. Instead, raise up your common humanity. Do something non-threatening together.

Apply the teaching in your own way

These are the metaphoric teachings that I personally see in the text. But only you know the circumstances of your own life. So you will know what these metaphors can mean for you. Let  them help you, in ways that work for you. As Rabbi Alexandri reminds us: they just might be transformative.

Want to read more about the spirituality of donkeys? I recommend my book Mouth of the Donkey: Re-imagining Biblical Animals.

Image: Ad for the boook Ego is the Enemy by Ryan Holiday.


[1] B. Talmud Bava Metzia 32b:16. For more on tzar ba’alei chayim, reducing the distress of living creatures, see, for example, Hava Tirosh Samuelson.

[2] Midrash Tanchuma Mishpatim 1:2

[3] Shenei Luchot HaBerit, Torah Shebikhtav, Ki Teitzei, Torah Ohr 50

[4] Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, Covenant and Conversation-Exodus: The Book of Redemption

[5] Sefer HaChinukh 16:2

[6] As it is used in Lamentations 1:20 and Job 16:16.

[7] Psalms 25:19 suggests that sometimes hate is based on nothing. Or, I might add, in modern times, disinformation—news with no substance behind it.

[8] Jeremiah 18:4-6

[9] Isaiah 45:9.

2 Comments
  1. My initial response is “but of course.”

    Later I find myself wondering if friendship is being devalued by this interpretation.

    1. That’s definitely what I thought the first 20 times I read it. Of course you would help your friend help their animal.

      But—and maybe I should add this interpretation to the post—now I see it as an allegory of questioning the logic of your allegiances to at least try on a different perspective. A thought experiment.

      (I mean it really is a thought experiment. Because, if you think it through, the situation would actually be rather complex with three people and two donkeys. Would you and your friend both rush to help your enemy? Or would you and your enemy rush to help your friend? What if the third person was your enemy but your friend’s friend? Etc.)

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