The word for “and” in Hebrew is not a separate word: it is a one-letter prefix, the letter vav. Sometimes it is translated as and, other times it is best translated as “but”; sometimes, vav is a participle that doesn’t need to be translated. In the opening sentence of Parashat Mishpatim, the translation used in the Reform Movement’s Chumash discounts the vav that is attached to first word:
These are the rules [mishpatim] that you shall set before them. (Ex. 21:1; JPS trans.  in W. Gunther Plaut, gen. ed., The Torah: A Modern Commentary, rev. ed. )
While the contemporary biblical scholarship behind the modern translation might be right on the linguistic history, the ear attuned to later Hebrew, from the time of the Mishnah until today, cannot help but hear the first verse as:
And these are the rules that you shall set before them. (V’eileh hamishpatim asher tasim lifneihem.)
For ancient and medieval commentators, as well as some modern scholars, the detailed list of laws in this parashah is a continuation of the giving of the Ten Commandments, bringing to a close the covenant ceremony that started at the Sinai Event (Ex. 19-20). The word, and, emphasizes that connection – a connection that becomes clearer when, after three chapters (Ex. 21-23) of seemingly disconnected laws, the narrative text picks up again at the foot of Mount Sinai (Ex. 24). In this line of interpretation, we are to understand the Ten Commandments as general principles that inform the specific laws that follow (see Deut. 4:12-14 and see the Rabbinic midrash on Exodus, M’chilta D’Rabbi Yishmael, Tractate N’zikin).
It’s not just a legal connection that links Parashat Mishpatim with preceding chapters, it’s also the liberation narrative that underlies laws connected in this section. Some of the connections are explicit, for example:
You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt. (Ex. 23:9)
And while the text doesn’t clearly point it out, it is reasonable to connect some of the laws opening this week’s reading that attempt to put ethical limitations on servitude with the Israelites’ own experience of slavery (Ex. 21:2-11, 20-21, 26-27).
Another powerful literary link made possible by the editorial juxtaposition of Mishpatim to the Exodus narrative can be found in considering these laws:
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]. (Ex. 23:4-5)
On a literary level, the beleaguered Israelites, who are not yet fully recovered from escaping their Egyptian enemy, are now being instructed that there are certain values that take precedence over conflict. What rationale propels this ancient version of the modern-day Geneva Conventions?
In her brilliant and moving poem “Each of Us Has a Name,” the Israeli poet, Zelda Schneurson Mishkovsky (June 20, 1914 – April 30, 1984) suggests that in living between the dialectics of the human experience, we find our essence. As a poet who crossed many boundaries in her long life, Zelda – known most often by just her first name – adds this to the long list of things that define us:
Each of us has a name
given by our enemies
and given by our love
Those who take Exodus 23:4-5 seriously will have the reputation, even among their enemies, as people who respect ownership rights and are compassionate toward living things – two values that could literally be trampled on during a period of conflict (see also Deut. 20:19-20 about protecting trees during battle). Reading these laws narrowly (apart from the other Torah passages that deal with the concept of enemy), we want to peel away textual layers to better understand what the verses means by “enemy.” By moving certain civic norms outside of a conflict situation, the Torah seems to be teaching that there are deeper causes that make enemies out of people.
One attempt to locate those deeper causes is found in the Rabbinic midrash on Exodus known as the M’chilta d’Rabbi Yishmael, which was edited and translated into English by one of the earliest teachers and scholars at Hebrew Union College, Professor Jacob Z. Lauterbach (1873-1942). In response to “your enemy’s ox” (Ex. 23:4), the M’chilta follows its usual format, offering side-by-side opinions for consideration. Here we have four interpretations from second century Rabbis (cited here from the Jewish Publication Society’s Lauterbach translation:
The Ox of Thine Enemy. R. Josiah says: This means of a heathen worshiping idols. For thus we find everywhere that the heathen are designated as enemies of Israel … [cites Deut. 21:10 and 23:10 as proof texts] … R. Eliezer says: This passage refers to a proselyte who has relapsed into his former evil predilection. R. Isaac says: This passage refers to an apostate Israelite. R. Jonathan says: This passage refers to an Israelite. How then can Scripture say: “Thine enemy”? It is simply this: If one has beaten his son or has had a quarrel with him, he becomes his enemy for the time being. (trans., Lauterbach [Philadelphia: JPS, 2004], p. 469)
For the first three ancient Sages, an enemy is inherently one who adheres to a belief system that is expressed through polytheism, which they understood to be ethically inferior. Liberal Judaism today would not take such a blanket ethical stand against other faiths, since we have learned to appreciate wisdom in a pluralistic sense. However, our society in general is grappling with questions about the relationship between religious ideologies and extreme intolerance: some people consider certain faith adherents to be enemies of what they themselves stand for.
Rabbi Jonathan’s opinion takes the idea of enemy and inserts it into human relations on a personal and intimate level. If we find ourselves in even a temporary quarrel, we must be mindful of the impact our conflict can have on those around us. By allowing one’s quarrel to lead to the disrespect of property and life, we extend the effects to society at large by loosening the structures that preserve coexistence.