Late this past spring, the Rev. Michael Jennings, pastor of a small church near Birmingham, Alabama, was arrested while watering his neighbor’s flowers. Multiple police officers approached 56-year-old Jennings who had been friends with the neighbor for seven years, treated him as a suspicious person and placed him in handcuffs when he refused to show his ID. Later, after Jennings was in cuffs, one of the officers asked him indignantly how they would know he was watering the flowers. Jennings chuckled: “I had a hose right there in my hands!”
The absurdity of this encounter goes well beyond the plain racial profiling or even the officers’ refusal to back down from their arrest of a non-threatening and law-abiding citizen (they couldn’t even come to a clear conclusion about what the charge ought to be). And it goes beyond the profoundly irresponsible (and undoubtedly racist) neighbor Amanda who phoned the police when she saw a “suspicious person,” but didn’t bother to look closely enough to realize it was her neighbor Pastor Jennings, whom she knew.
Perhaps the worst part of this story is that Jennings was doing exactly what neighbors ought to be doing – taking care of one another and taking care of their property. The Torah is so insistent on this value, it declares one must even help one’s enemy: “When you see the ass of your enemy lying under its burden and would refrain from raising it, you must nevertheless help raise it” (Ex. 23:5). One might think the chief concern here is the suffering of the animal, and that does seem to be a consideration. Read: even if your enemy’s ass is suffering you should help because the ass has done nothing to deserve your resentment.
But that’s also not the entire story. The Babylonian Talmud (Bava Metzia 32b) uses this verse to teach a different lesson: one about the virtue of helping our enemy. “Come and hear: a friend [whose animal collapsed, and it is necessary] to unload [its burden], and [one also encounters] an enemy [who needs assistance] to load [a burden onto his animal], the obligation (mitzvah) is to assist the enemy, in order to subjugate [one’s evil] inclination.” In other words, we choose to help an enemy over a friend to get better at hating enemies less.
If this is true for our enemies, that we demonstrate our better angels by helping them with their property, what’s assumed is that most of us would gladly help our friends – it’s just what neighbors do! When we moved to Reservoir Hill, we were immediately pleased to see it was a neighborhood where people shoveled each other’s walks, pulled back each other’s garbage cans on trash day and, yes, watered each other’s flowers.
What was so insidious about neighbor Amanda and the police officers’ behavior in Childersburg, AL (population 5,000) is not that they collectively enabled the arrest of a neighbor and spiritual leader without cause. It’s not even their failure to celebrate Pastor Jennings’ neighborly behavior. Their true sin was that they thought one person watering another person’s flowers was worth paying attention to at all! Let’s say Jennings was indeed watering flowers without permission. Who cares! I do that all the time. So do my neighbors. And our community, any community, is better for all the people who do little things for one another without being asked and without any expectation of acknowledgment or even thanks.
Suspicion and cynicism aren’t supposed to be the norm. Generosity is. The Torah cautions against punishing even our neighbors or their animals too harshly. But it doesn’t even contemplate turning our neighbors into enemies by condemning their kindness and castigating their benevolence. Pastor Jennings was just a normal guy doing a normal thing. This isn’t a story about his heroism. It’s a story about other people’s villainy.
A Version of this post will appear in Jmore.