Nearly 60 years ago, some social scientists did an experiment in which they took 22 11 year old boys up to a large camp on separate buses, divided them into two groups and deposited them in separate ends of the camp. They couldn’t see each other. didn’t even know the other group existed at first.
The kids on each side of the camp bonded with each other for several days: playing games, swimming, eating, complaining about the food, giving themselves a group name, putting the name on t-shirts.
Then the kids from each side of the camp were brought together for a series of competitions with a winner take all set of prizes – the team that finished second got nothing.
The kids became enemies: they played dirty tricks on each other. They raided each other’s cabins, and not in a playful way, they burned each other’s flags, they called each other names.
The next step in this experiment (and I am still trying to figure out what kind of parents signed a release form for this) involved bringing the two groups of kids together for some fun – shared dining hall, shared movies. But these devolved into food fights and other violence.
The final step in the experiment they manufactured a series of projects the kids had to work on together: first they created a water pipe problem that both groups had to solve together. Then they rode a bus that broke down and they had to push together. As they worked side by side on a common problem, they overcome their animosity, their enmity toward each other, and by the time they drove away on the same bus, they were sitting next to each, laughing and singing. And the prize winners used their winnings to buy ice cream for everyone.
This experiment goes to prove two torah verses in this week’s parasha, Mishpatim.
Ex. 23:4 When you encounter your enemy’s ox or donkey wandering, you must take it back to him. 5 When you see the donkey of your enemy lying under its burden and would refrain from raising it, you must nevertheless raise it with him.
How often do we want to walk away from our enemy’s problems, because we think they deserve it. Why should I bother? They wouldn’t help me. They were mean to me.
You ever feel like that?
I think this mishpat – or law or rule, addresses two really important Jewish principles:
First – it’s in no small part about taking care of animals, whether you like their owners or not. You can’t let them wander the streets or fields in danger, and you can’t let them suffer, just because they belong to your enemy. This is called Tza’ar Ba’alei Chayim: Cruelty to Animals. We forbid it. It’s more important than pretty much anything except saving human life… Did you all know that it was embedded in the Torah, right here?
Second, we see the principle of co-existing peacefully together in community, even if you don’t love the person. It doesn’t tell you to love your enemy. But it does tell you you have to help them out when they are in trouble. Because maybe – just maybe – by helping them, working with them, you can see another side of their story, and turn the enmity into something better. It doesn’t say that you have to help if your enemy is sitting by the side of the road crying, not doing anything – you have to do it imo – with him. You cannot walk on by, however much you want to. You must surely assist…
This week, we had a great discussion in the older religious school class about people with disabilities and how we are supposed to treat people who are different from us–which seems to bear on this topic as well. In class, a lot of the discussion had to do with appearance – remember the story of the rabbi meeting the very ugly man? We make enemies for such strange reasons sometimes. And later on, maybe after we’ve worked with them, or we’ve really listened to their back story, or we’ve been open to hearing their core values, we realize, maybe we decided too soon about our relationship. Oftentimes, it’s because they remind us of ways we act that we don’t like, or they remind us of people we have a challenging relationship with or we don’t like how they look or we are afraid of how they look.
Which brings us back to the similarities in how we treat people with disabilities and enemies… The torah and our tradition give us important tools to make the transition to seeing them and treating them differently. The first is from these verses: help them by working with them. The second is through an ancient and yet modern blessing. Blessings can offer us windows into wonder, opportunities to view our experiences and observations in a positive, even holy light. This is especially true for the blessings for seeing someone or something different from ourselves.
Baruch ata YHWH, Eloheinu melekh ha’olam, m’shaneh habriot.
You are the source of blessing, YHWH, sovereign of the universe, who forms diversity in creation.
It reminds us that we are each of us part of the variety and the blessings of the world. We use the same blessing when we see many other of the world’s varied creations: the blessing, m’shaneh habriot, is also said on seeing an elephant, an ape or a long-tailed ape (B. Berachot 58b). When we combine this idea, that the Cause of Being has created this rich diversity, with the idea that we are all created b’tzelem Elohim, with the spark of divinity, then we see that people with disabilities and our enemies are part of the wonders of creation, not people who are “less than.”
The blessing is a reminder that when we see someone who is different, we should consecrate the moment with a blessing, rather than exclaim in shock and horror. It is a way to promote civil society and teach us good manners. It gently guides us to see everyone who id different, no matter how different, as part of the wondrous tapestry of creation. This blessing declares that however you are born, you are still a blessing.
I am indebted to R. Elisheva Beyer, R. Jonathan Sacks’ Covenant and Conversations: Exodus (and the the Torah Study group of Congregation Shomrei Torah for giving it to me), and to Rabbi Nathaniel Ezray for this discussion. The experiment described at the beginning was the Robber’s Cave Experiment (psychclassics.yorku.ca/Sherif/).