After experiencing the revelation on Mount Sinai in parashat Yitro, in which the entire nation merited a divine revelation and heard the Ten Commandments, in parashat Mishpatim we get into reality and read of laws on less uplifting topics: slavery, damages, quarrels, murder, theft and more – subjects in the field of criminal law.
This is the first set of laws given to the Jewish nation immediately after Mount Sinai, with the accompanying message being very clear: religiosity is expressed not only in uplifting experiences but is also supposed to affect daily life. Faith is not meant to remain in the heart; it should influence all aspects of life, including relationships between a person and his fellow man.
Let us examine one of the commandments that appear in this parasha: “If you see your enemy’s donkey lying under its burden, would you refrain from helping him? You shall surely help along with him” (Ex. 23:5).
“If you see your enemy’s donkey lying under its burden, would you refrain from helping him? You shall surely help along with him”
The exact situation described in this verse is not very common in the modern world, but in the ancient world – and in various places today – a donkey is routinely used as a beast of burden. It could happen that a person overloaded the donkey, and the donkey, whose powers are limited, has collapsed. In such a case, the Torah commands the person who sees a donkey collapsing under his load to reach out and help unload the heavy burden from the donkey’s back.
A similar verse is found in parashat Ki Tetze in the Book of Deuteronomy: “You shall not see your brother’s donkey or his ox fallen on the road, and ignore them. [Rather,] you shall pick up with him” (Deut. 22:4).
“You shall not see your brother’s donkey or his ox fallen on the road, and ignore them. [Rather,] you shall pick up with him”
SCRIBES FINISH writing a Torah scroll. (credit: DAVID COHEN/FLASH 90)
Here, too, we are talking about a donkey or an ox that fell, and the Torah commands us not to ignore the situation and continue on our way but to help the owner of the beast lift it back on its feet.
The case of helping up a donkey
In the Talmud, sages discussed which of these two commandments comes first. A man who encounters two donkeys – one collapsed under its load and the other which fell without a heavy load on its back. Which one should he help?
The conclusion of the Talmud is clear. Unloading of the heavy load on the donkey’s back comes first because in this way the person fulfills two commandments: He helps the donkey owner continue his journey, and he also relieves the suffering of the donkey collapsing under the heavy load. Prevention of cruelty to animals is a value in itself that stands alongside helping others.
But the sages noticed something that we skipped: “your enemy’s donkey.” The law in Mishpatim refers to a donkey that belongs to a person with whom I have a hostile and angry relationship. From this, the sages learned that there is a case in which it is better to go help a donkey that has fallen on the way, even though there is no burden on its back. When the donkey belongs to a person with whom I have a negative relationship, I must approach and help that person!
Why? The Talmud’s reasoning: “in order to subjugate his evil inclination.” When I help a person about whom I have negative feelings, I must make an effort to overcome my natural tendency to ignore their plight or perhaps even rejoice about their misfortune. The “subjugation of inclination,” overcoming negative natural tendencies, is very important in the eyes of the Torah, and it causes a change in the priorities of the commandments.
The morality of the Torah is not only utilitarian, one that regulates the relationships between human beings and brings happiness and well-being to humanity. Equally important to the Torah is that man improves his character and becomes a better person. The goal is not only the other, but the person himself whom the Torah addresses. When you help a person you don’t like, someone with whom you have a bad history, you become a better, more moral, refined person in control of his inclinations.
Of this, the Hazon Ish (Rabbi Avraham Yeshaya Karelitz, one of the leaders of haredi Judaism in Israel in the mid-20th century) wrote:
“…the tendency from the simplicity of life to the depths of life, into the inner workings of life. The more often man breaks his inclinations, he increases life, because breaking inclinations kills superficial life, and the death of the inclination is the life that leads in the way of Torah… This death is rising revival!” (Collection of Letters of the Hazon Ish, Part 1, Letter 3).■
The writer is rabbi of the Western Wall and holy sites.