Who is your enemy?

One of my friends said that she must have done something right in the last year, because she had acquired more enemies. Winston Churchill, who was Britain’s prime minister during World War II, would have agreed:

You have enemies? Good. That means you’ve stood up for something, sometime in your life.

However, I also remember my grandfather. He was a gentle man with a book-lined study, a smoking pipe, and — in his desk drawer — a bag of peanut M&Ms for a certain nerdy grandson. He was never financially successful, but he was honest, loved, and respected by everyone who knew him. My father said that when he died, “he had no enemies, and that was a kind of success.”

What does it mean to have an enemy?

Is it just someone with whom you disagree? Whose material interests conflict with yours? Who tries to harm you?

I’d argue it requires more than that. It requires emotional commitment on both sides: a desire to destroy the enemies’ welfare, happiness, or even their lives, and a determination to destroy them if possible.

‘It sounds like a lot of work,’ as a movie character said. [1]

The Dead Sea Scrolls give a classic example of that kind of thinking about enemies, and what often motivates it.

The scrolls describe the beliefs of the Essenes, an ancient Jewish religious sect at Qumran. According to the Community Rule (also known as the Manual of Discipline), members of the sect:

[Must] love all the sons of light, each according to his lot in God’s design, and hate all the sons of darkness, each according to his guilt in God’s vengeance. [2]

The “sons of light” are members of the sect. Who are the “sons of darkness”? They’re not Romans, Egyptians, or Babylonians. The sons of darkness are other Jews who are not members of the sect.

The Essenes didn’t much like Romans, Egyptians, Babylonians, or other non-Jews, but they didn’t hate them with a burning passion. It was other Jews who were not members of the sect that were perceived as “other” and singled out for special hostility. [3]

To hate others as our enemies is to view them not as people, but solely as threats and targets. Sometimes, as in war, that’s unavoidable. Most of the time, however, it’s unnecessary and unhelpful. It prepares us both physically and emotionally to act in ways inconsistent with the rest of our tradition. The Book of Exodus tells us:

23:4: When you encounter your enemy’s ox or ass wandering, you must take it back to him. 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. [4]

And of course, there’s Hillel‘s famous advice:

That which is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. This is the whole of the Torah. The rest is commentary. [5]

Even the pre-biblical Gilgamesh story gets it right when it advises the wild man Enkidu:

Make yourself an enemy to your anger. [6]

If others hurt us or frustrate our goals, we can recognize them as adversaries without hating them. Sometimes, we might not even think ill of them. Just like us, they have their own goals, and they believe their actions against us are justified.

However, when we declare them to be our “enemies,” we often hurt ourselves more than we hurt them. First, we chain ourselves to them with bonds of hatred. Second, we let emotion distort our judgment, and we become unable to see them as they really are. Third, we devote thought, energy, time, and resources to negative, destructive ends instead of focusing on our own positive goals.

So in the coming year, make a simple commitment: Eliminate your enemies.

That doesn’t mean doing anything to anyone, unless they attack you. It means changing your attitude about life, the world, and other people. It means remembering that God created all of us, even those who hate us.

Begin the morning by saying to thyself: I shall meet with the busybody, the ungrateful, arrogant, deceitful, envious, unsocial. All these things happen to them by reason of their ignorance of what is good and evil. But I who have seen the nature of the good that it is beautiful and of the bad that it is ugly, and the nature of him who does wrong … I can neither be injured by any of them, for no one can fix on me what is ugly, nor can I be angry with my kinsman, nor hate him. [7]

Works Cited

Brettler, M. et al (2014), The Jewish Study Bible, second edition. Oxford University Press, Oxford, UK.

Gardner, J., translator (1984), Gilgamesh. Vintage Books, New York. Kindle edition.

Long, G., translator (1937), The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius Antoninus. Harvard Classics, Volume 2, P.F. Collier & Son, New York.

Vermes, G., translator (2004), The Complete Dead Sea Scrolls in English. Penguin Books, New York. Kindle edition.

Footnotes

  1. “Easy A” (2010).
  2. Vermes, G. (2004), loc. 2259.
  3. Biology inclines living creatures to be hostile toward others who might compete with them and their families for resources. For more information, see Haidt, J. (2010), The Moral Animal, Vintage Press, New York.
  4. Brettler, M. (2014), loc. 6250.
  5. “Hillel,” MyJewishLearning.com.
  6. Gardner, J. (1984), loc. 1744.
  7. Long, G. (1937), p. 199.