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Parashat Ki Teze 5779
by Meir Sendor
Among the endearing features of Israeli street talk are the freely used terms of affection that convey a sense of family, even with distant acquaintances or strangers. Women often call others “mami — sweetie”; men often call each other “achi – my brother.” I don’t know how “mami” got started – to American ears it’s quite cute. But to call a fellow Jew “achi” has roots in the Torah itself, in this week’s parashah.
דברים פרק כב פסוק ד
לא תראה את חמור אחיך או שורו נפלים בדרך והתעלמת מהם הקם תקים עמו:
Do not watch the donkey of your brother or his ox falling on the road and hide yourself from them – lift up, you should lift up with him.
A parallel to this mitzvah appears earlier in the Torah, but with a significant difference in terms:
שמות פרק כג פסוק ה
כי תראה חמור שנאך רבץ תחת משאו וחדלת מעזב לו עזב תעזב עמו: ס
If you see the donkey of someone who hates you crouching under its load and consider desisting from unloading it, unload, you should unload with him.
In our parashah you are commanded to help the donkey of “your brother,” while earlier, in Parashat Mishpatim, it’s the donkey of someone who hates you. The midrash halakhah Sifrei explains that when the Torah extends this mitzvah to helping an antagonist, it is encouraging us to act “against our inclination,” to conquer our baser emotions of hatred and revenge.
The Gemara Baba Metzia tightens the comparison to explore the issue of priorities. It notes that an owner and his donkey or ox or any beast of burden can need assistance in two ways: to help relieve an animal of its burden, or to help reload an animal whose burden has shifted or fallen off. Generally speaking, if you are confronted with two situations – someone needing help unloading an animal and another person needing help loading an animal, to relieve an animal of its burden comes first, since a second mitzvah comes into play – the prohibition of causing suffering to animals. But what if the person needing help to unload is your friend, while the one needing help loading is your antagonist? The Gemara answers:
תלמוד בבלי מסכת בבא מציעא דף לב עמוד ב
תא שמע: אוהב לפרוק ושונא לטעון – מצוה בשונא כדי לכוף את יצרו. ואי סלקא דעתך צער בעלי חיים דאורייתא, הא עדיף ליה! – אפילו הכי, כדי לכוף את יצרו עדיף.
Come and hear. For a friend needing help to unload and a hater needing help to load – the mitzvah is [to load] with the hater, in order to subdue one’s inclination. If you consider avoiding causing suffering to animals to be a biblical command, [unloading] should be the preferred priority! Even so, subduing one’s inclination takes priority.
Halakhah is a system that embraces complexity. An important part of navigating the often competing demands of life is understanding the essential goals of Torah that provide necessary hierarchies and priorities of values. While the Torah takes very seriously the requirement to care for animals compassionately, compassionate treatment and relations between human beings is the most essential principle it inculcates. To this end the Torah continually calls us, in all mitzvot, to transcend our lower, meaner emotions and cultivate what the kabbalists call “מוחין דגדלות — expanded consciousness.” So when confronted with two mitzvah demands – two animals and their owners needing help with loading or unloading – we are directed to engage first in the case that is more challenging for us emotionally and morally, to overcome dislike of an antagonist and help them.
Rabbenu Bachya ben Asher takes this halakhah one step further. Noting that earlier in the Torah the mitzvah is stated in terms of helping someone who hates you, while later, in our parshah, it’s about helping “your brother’s donkey,” he explains it’s not just that helping the hater works a transformation within us. It also can transform the other person and awaken his compassion and effect a reconciliation such that he ultimately becomes “your brother.” This is one of the major issues of this month of Elul, as we prepare for Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur. Our responsibility is to work on self-correction, yes – to improve our moral qualities and spiritual awareness and try to mend past mistakes. But that’s not all – the work of Tshuvah is not all internal. An essential part of this process is mending our relationships, so essential that the Mishnah Yuma states:
משנה מסכת יומא פרק ח
עבירות שבין אדם למקום יום הכפורים מכפר עבירות שבין אדם לחבירו אין יום הכפורים מכפר עד שירצה את חברו
Transgression between a person and God, Yom Kippur cleanses. Transgression between a person and his colleague Yom Kippur does not cleanse until one reconciles with one’s colleague.
Working on internal mistakes and tendencies can in some ways be easier – they’re nominally within our sphere of direct influence, though that’s not to say that dealing with our inner donkey isn’t challenging. But when you need to reconcile with another person who is angry or upset with you, it takes self-transcendence, it requires some understanding of the other person, it takes some courage to be vulnerable and take a risk, and all of this can be very uncomfortable.
Speaking of donkeys – I googled donkeys and their reputation for stubbornness, and apparently it’s a misunderstanding on our part. Donkeys are not stubborn, but they are very cautious and self-protective. So unlike horses, they don’t accede to our wishes right away and don’t move until they are sure that what we want them to do or where we want them to go is safe. Sounds familiar. This may be a subtle reason why the Torah couches these mitzvot that urge self-transcendence and reconciliation between people in terms of donkeys – to get us out of our safe-zones and comfort-zones to act with courage. And this is the real holy work.
And this holy work of getting beyond ourselves can not only help heal ourselves and heal our relationships, but help heal the world. Hurricane Dorian wreaked tremendous devastation in the Bahamas. Several Israeli and Jewish aid organizations have been quick to respond, getting volunteers on the ground to help the people of the Bahamas deal with extreme medical and health crises, provide water and food and shelter and help with what will be a long and painful process of rebuilding. This is the most essential spirit of Torah – to help lift up all human beings, whoever and wherever they are, and realize we are all brothers and sisters.