Mishpatim – Helping the Helpless
Among the many interpersonal Mitzvot related in Mishpatim there are several Mitzvot demanding that a Jew come to the aid of another who is in a difficult predicament, although the two may not be on friendly terms. The Torah demands action in such cases, implying condemnation of complacency. This concept is basic to Torah law, and is perhaps best encapsulated by the Mitzvah of “You shall not stand on your brother’s blood,” which demands action from a Jew to save another from harm. In our Parsha this concept is extended to the property of another, his personal belongings and livestock, which if found must be looked after and returned to their owner. Another curious extension is the Mitzvah of assisting to unload the burden of an animal struggling under the weight of its load.
“If you see the donkey of someone you hate staggering under its burden, would you refrain from helping him? – you shall surely help [with] him.” (Exodus 23:5)
The example in the above verse highlights an instance in which one might naturally feel cynical glee that the other is stuck with such a problem, as there is no love lost between the two. Yet the appropriate thing to do, and the Torah insists on it, is come to the other’s aid. And one must do so repeatedly if necessary. In essence, regard for the suffering animal and the distress of someone in need must override the impulse of relishing the misfortune of a foe.
The commandment to assist in unloading the burden from the donkey is written in an unusual form – “you shall surely help with him.” Rabbi Ephraim Luntschitz, in his 19th century commentary Kli Yakar, explains that the obligation to assist only applies when the owner is also making an effort. When someone tries and is unsuccessful it is appropriate and necessary to assist. When no effort is made, however, and the owner may be mocking the other, putting him in a position where he feels compelled t