The Exodus:5 Project
When you see the ass of your enemy lying under its burden and would refrain from raising it, you must nevertheless raise it with him. Exodus 23:5
Some years ago an earthquake struck Iran with devastating results. That’s not an unusual occurrence, but this time it was in the midst of some more extreme antagonism toward the West than had become customary. Lots of people were suffering; everything had fallen down. The world’s nations rushed forward with offers of aid. Iran announced that they would gratefully accept all assistance, except from Israel.
I remember thinking some unkind thoughts about the Iranian government at that time. I believe my sentiments leaned toward a profane and physically impossible act of intimacy. Your people are dying and you are willing to turn down the help of the most skilled team of emergency responders in the world?
Shortly thereafter, an appeal landed in my inbox from an American Jewish organization dedicated to service around the world. The CEO made an appeal for relief funds to send teams to Iran to aid the victims of the earthquake. The request was well-documented and very much in line with the mission of the organization, which I had been supporting. But I was stunned. What was a Jewish organization doing supporting relief efforts for a country that, in its greatest hour of need, put hatred of Jews over the lives of its citizens?
I wrote to the CEO and made my case, expressing my admiration for the remarkable work that had been done turning this organization around from underperformance to leadership, but suggesting that this time they had gotten it wrong.
I received a thoughtful reply – nowhere near my impolite thoughts about the Iranian government. In it, the CEO expressed the hope that I would eventually come around to a different point of view, especially since the Israelis themselves went to Iran to do relief work anyway, but under a different flag.
I remembered that interaction when I was asked to contribute to relief supplies for children in Iraq during the American blockade that was part of the Gulf War. A young activist pressed me hard to contribute funds that would, as he put it, feed the starving children of Baghdad. The funds available to me at the time were modest, and there were other demands on them. Again, I declined. I was troubled by the notion of giving aid and comfort to an enemy of the United States. His reaction was that children are not our enemies.
People in conflict place an enormous burden on those around them. It does not matter if the conflict is across national borders or across the backyard fence. When suffering befalls those who are not party to the conflict – civilians, children, beasts of burden – whether it is the result of the conflict or merely the circumstances of life, making a decision to help lift the fallen of my enemy carries with it the concern that I may be participating in my own disadvantage or defeat. My concern for myself and those dear to me restrains me from reaching out to those in need who, in better circumstances, would immediately receive my support.
The verse that begins this column is a sly reprimand to people like me and promotes a psychological ploy long before the invention of psychology. My enemy has overburdened his ass; well, what do you expect from a guy like that? And the animal collapsed under the weight? That’s not my problem. But the expectation is that I will not permit this innocent beast to serve as the surrogate for my antipathy toward its owner. In fact, I must show my enemy what a great guy I am by working with him to lift the beast. Having accomplished a righteous act together, we have the accidental basis of a mended relationship.
I was fortunate to have another opportunity to see this idea in action. When the Carmel Forest caught fire in Israel, assistance came pouring in from all over the world, including those technically at war with Israel. The trees bore no more responsibility for conflict than the aforementioned donkey. This time, a little older and wiser, I had a better reaction. With a friend and colleague, I visited the embassy of every country and entity that pitched in to stop the fire. We presented a certificate of appreciation – a tree, planted in their honor, and an invitation to come see it grow.