This week’s Torah Reading repeats a law from the Book of Exodus. In Deuteronomy, we find that one must help one’s “brother” when we encounter his donkey struggling under its burden. In Exodus, we were told to help with the burden of the donkey of one’s “enemy.” In both cases, we are told explicitly to work “with” the other party in addressing the problem. Why give the instruction first in reference to my enemy and a second time in reference to my brother?
In 1954, researchers at the University of Oklahoma conducted an experiment known as the “Robbers Cave Experiment” (after the name of the park it was conducted in). The researchers wanted to understand the dynamics of group conflict and prejudice. They selected two groups of eleven-year-old boys, none of whom had met one another before. Unbeknownst to each other, the two groups spent time in team building activities; choosing a group name, designing a flag, etc. Afterwards, the two groups were introduced to each other through a series of competitive games; trophies, winners & losers, etc. Almost immediately tension arose between them. Teasing and shouting out insults led to refusals to even eat together in the same dining hall.
The researchers employed strategies to dial down the discord. Meetings and fun activities together were arranged. This ended in arguments and food fights. But then the researchers created bilateral problems, such as blockage in the drinking water supply or the shared bus being stuck in the mud. When the groups were obliged to shoulder burdens together, they cooperated, celebrated their success, and soon bonded in friendship.
Hostility can be transformed into camaraderie. The key word in both biblical passages is “with.” When I find a way to work “with my enemy” the shared nature of the challenge can forge a newly minted “brother.”
Rabbi Mitch Levine