If you see your brother’s ass or ox fallen on the road, do not ignore it; you must raise it with him. (Devarim 22:4)
You shall not turn over to his master a slave who seeks refuge with you from his master. He shall live with you in any place he may choose….you must not ill-treat him. (Devarim 23:16)
When you reap the harvest in your field and overlook a sheaf in the field, do not turn back to get it; it shall go to the stranger, the orphan and the widow – in order that the Lord your God may bless you in all your undertakings. (Devarim 24:19)
A man stands helpless
as his donkey wallows,
kicking on the road,
laden torso heaving.
Willing hands support him:
as the donkey stands
not only he is raised.
A man emerges
from the shadows
fugitive and furtive:
a slave, escaped.
not only he goes free.
Softly, footsteps tread
on wheat fields freshly reaped;
callused fingers shake
as they glean forgotten grain.
Neediness is tended,
hunger is assuaged,
God’s hand overflows.
In the verse on the fallen ass, the exhortation to help your fellow raise the animal contains an emphatic doubling of the root “to raise”: “hakem takim imo – you must raise it with him.” The Sefat Emet teaches that when you raise your fellow’s ass, you will raise yourself with him. In a blogpost on this theme, http://parshathoughtsmore.blogspot.co.il/2011/09/parashat-ki-tetzehelping-yourself-and.html Dr Rachel Anisfeld says, “When you help someone else up, you also help yourself up. The more you share in your friend’s burden, the more you repair yourself and give yourself a boost. The Torah teaches us how to act kindly towards others not just for the sake of those others, but also for our own sake.
What would it do to you “to see” your friend’s burden and turn away? What kind of a hardening of heart would that simple act cause? How would it affect your sense of connectedness to others? The world would suddenly become a disjointed, uncaring lonely place, whereas if you can see and understand his burden and help him with it, then not only is he not alone, but neither are you.
If you forgot a piece of wheat in the field, and you took the trouble to go back for it even though you knew a poor person would otherwise collect it, you would feel tight-fisted and exacting. To leave behind a little for others is not just generous to others. It creates in you a sense of abundance, a sense that the world is a place that provides for its creatures. Your own open hand reminds you of God’s open hand and makes you feel well-cared for. Generosity is a form of well-being.
If you muzzle your ox while he is threshing and do not allow him to eat a little grain as he works, what kind of a work environment are you creating for yourself and those around you? Is the world that tight on time and revenue? Placing a muzzle on an ox also places one on you as well, making you feel constrained and anxious. The freedom of the unmuzzled animal also leads to a sense of freedom and peace in its owner. The world is ours to consume and enjoy as we toil our days away. We do not need to spend our days tethered and constricted.”
However, Dr Anisfeld points out that the purpose of these mitsvot is not only self-improvement. She refers to the article on this parasha by Rabbi David Bigman in his book, The Fire and the Cloud – Contemporary Reflections on the Weekly Torah Reading. Rav Bigman points out that various passages in it follow a pattern in which the Torah “offers pairs of rationales for commandments, one referring to the “receiver” and the other to the “giver”.” He says that when a commandment involves an act of kindness, the parashah frequently states the benefit accruing to the performer of the mitsva (as in the forgotten sheaf in the verse above, and famously in the mitsva of sending the mother bird away from the nest before taking her chicks, among other examples). So Rav Bigman wonders whether the point of these mitsvot is to refine human character or to benefit others? He says that the two are fairly intertwined, but suggests that the emotive language used, “your brother, your fellow,” emphasises that keeping these mitsvot strengthens the ties between people, and thus helping others is the ultimate aim. Rav Bigman takes issue with the trend in which personal development is paramount and which maintains that acts of kindness are solely to promote personal spiritual improvement and avoid negative emotional harm to the one who carries out such acts. He concludes, “We are called upon to direct our gaze toward others, and inner contemplation serves as only the first step towards that goal. Personal improvement is only the beginning of a process that ends with concern for others. Inwardly directed efforts do constitute an important stage in spiritual development, but they must lead us to open our eyes so that we can discover the open eyes of others – eyes that await us and depend upon us.”