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Friday, February 01, 2008

Mishpatim - Helping the Donkey

כי תראה חמור שנאך רבץ תחת משאו, וחדלת מעזב לו, עזב תעזב עמו

(שמות כ"ג, ה')

Mishpatim is a parasha fraught with commandments that encompass all walks of life and deal with some of the most complicated issues concerning commercial and fiduciary laws. But the parasha also deals with simple and seemingly mundane issues, such as helping someone's donkey:

"If you see the donkey of someone who hates you lying under its burden, and you refrain from assisting him, you shall repeatedly help with him"

What does the Torah mean by "and you refrain from assisting him"? If you must "repeatedly help him", then why would you refrain from doing so? Rashi says this is actually a rhetorical question: "would you refrain from assisting him? Of course not! You shall repeatedly help with him". (Although, halachically speaking, there are situations where one is indeed exempt from helping, and Rashi brings such an example).

The 16th century commentator Kli Yakar (R. Shlomo Efraim of Luntchitz) offers a different explanation. The first part says "and you refrain from assisting HIM", using the word lo (him) in Hebrew. But the concluding statement says "and you shall repeatedly help WITH HIM", using the word imo (with him) in Hebrew. The Torah changes pronoun from lo to imo to teach us that the owner of the donkey is not allowed to sit there waiting for another Jew to come along, and say: "unload my donkey, as this is your mitzvah!". In such circumstances, one is not obligated to help HIM. But if the donkey owner is willing to roll up his sleeves as well, only then is one obligated to help WITH HIM.

The Kli Yakar makes a profound sociological statement. If a person is able-bodied and capable but does nothing to help himself, then he cannot come to the community and ask for charity and help. All of us are familiar with people who expect the community to help them even if they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to help themselves first.

This is a shrewd interpretation by the Kli Yakar, but the fact remains that the context of this mitzvah is to help even if the donkey belongs to someone who hates us. To understand the full meaning of this help, here is a short story told about R. Israel Salanter, head of the mussar movement.

R. Israel was travelling on a train to Vilna. He was seated in a smoking compartment, enjoying a cigar, when a young passenger approached him and started yelling about the smoke. Although it was his right to smoke, R. Israel immediately put out the cigar and opened the window to let the smoke out. The same fellow shouted again at the rabbi, telling him to shut the window as it was now getting too cold.

Upon arriving in Vilna, the young man noticed the hundreds of people waiting to greet R. Israel and realised who the elderly passenger was. He started crying, begging R. Israel for forgiveness. R. Israel forgave him and asked him what he was looking for in Vilna. The youngster replied that he was looking for a job as a shochet (ritual slaughterer) but needed first a recommendation from a local rabbi. R. Israel referred him to his son-in-law for a letter of recommendation, but the man's knowledge was so poor he failed the test. So R. Israel found tutors to teach the man and prepare him for the test. Several weeks later, the man passed the test and R. Israel helped in again to find a job in Vilna.

The man came to R. Israel and asked him: I understand that you forgave me for my rudeness on the train, but why did you help me out so much, sending me to your son-in-law, finding tutors and helping me get a job? R. Israel reponsded: anyone can say "I forgive you", but I felt that the only way to really forgive you was to get to like you. And to get to like you, I had to help you, as the key to becoming someone's friend is to give from yourself. I wanted my forgiveness to be sincere, not merely lip service, so I had to go out of my way to help you.

And this is what the Torah commands us. We naturally feel like refraining from assisting our enemy with his donkey. But we need to overcome our natural inclincation, help him, and thus turn an enemy into a friend.

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