Mishpatim: The Burden

When you see your enemy’s donkey lying under its load and would refrain from raising it, you must nevertheless raise it with him. (Shemot 23:4-5)

The braying of the fallen donkey
does not quench the clamour,
does not drown the voice of protest
within an angry heart.

The piteous sight of flailing limbs
does not shift the stony mask,
does not ease the bitterness
of ire and affront.

Yet as you labour with your foe,
heaving up his laden beast,
the turmoil ebbs, the mask dissolves:
you drop your load on harrowed earth.


The Etz Hayim commentary of the JPS notes, “The Torah commands us neither to love nor to hate our enemy. Generally, the Torah commands behaviour not feelings. Its goal is justice, which is attainable – as opposed to loving everyone, which is an emotion-based attitude that cannot be commanded. We are to avoid malicious acts and treat everyone decently.”

In his book Torah of Reconciliation, Rabbi Sheldon Lewis cites a story from the Midrash: “Rabbi Alexandri said: Two donkey drivers who hated each other were walking along the road. The donkey of one of them lay down. His fellow passed by and saw he was lying down under his burden. He said: “Does it not say in the Torah ‘If you see the ass of him that hates you…you shall surely raise it with him’?” What did he do? He turned back and loaded [the animal] and accompanied [his enemy]. He began to converse with him. He loosened [the straps] a little from one side, lifted [it] from the other side, and strapped on that side until he had reloaded [the donkey] with him. The result was that they made peace with each other. The other said: “Didn’t I think he was my enemy? See how he had mercy on me when he saw me and my donkey in dire straits.” The consequence was that they entered an inn and ate and drank together. They developed affection for each other.” (Midrash Tanchuma*, Mishpatim 1)

Rabbi Lewis adds, “The case described in Torah is extreme, an encounter with an enemy who is in need of help. The goal is to seize this opportunity to overcome hatred and make a new beginning in a strained relationship. By doing this unexpected kindness, both parties are forced to reexamine their assumptions about each other. Being and remaining in a state of tension with another is intolerable. Any opening to show the other kindness becomes an opening to transform hatred into its opposite.”

In a current commentary on the parasha, http://learn.jtsa.edu/content/commentary/mishpatim/5775/i-can’t-stand-my-neighbor-his-ox-needs-hand, Rabbi Joel Alter says, “In the matter of one’s enemy’s animal that has collapsed under its load, we should recognize first that it’s taken for granted that one would assist a friend in that situation. The Torah is making the point that even in the situation where one might self-righteously think that the fool got what he deserved for overloading his animal, that he’s made his bed and now he’s going to sleep in it—that is precisely the situation in which one must act in the most responsible way. One must assist the owner in unpacking the animal’s load and then in repacking it. The Talmud and other sources debate whether the reason for this obligation is out of concern for the animal or to take the opportunity to overcome one’s most negative impulses. Maimonides concludes (Laws of Murder and Preservation of Life, 13:13) that the core motivation here is the latter. We are to walk into a situation that will challenge us deeply precisely because that is the case. We have to get over ourselves in order to make ours the kind of society it’s meant to be.”

However, in a commentary on Parashat Mishpatim from 2011, http://parshathoughtsmore.blogspot.co.il/2011/01/parashat-mishpatim-on-unloading-of.html, Dr Rachel Anisfeld addresses the unloading of burdens. She notes that the Torah first describes the natural reaction – not to help one’s enemy – but then demands that one does in fact go to assist.
She says, “The word used here for the “raising” of the burden is azov, which also means “to leave behind.” “Leave behind what is in your heart concerning him,” says Targum Onkelos**, an ancient translation of the Torah into Aramaic. “Leave behind at that moment the hatred in your heart concerning him and take apart the burden and carry it with him,” says Targum Yonatan***, another classical translation.
So Dr Anisfeld suggests that it is not only the ass weighted down with a heavy load, and this commandment is meant to help you offload your own baggage of hatred of someone else.
She points out that this mitzva, like many others, not only helps the one in need, but also teaches the one proffering the aid, to act righteously, despite his feelings, and then find some relief from the burden of his bitter emotions. She adds, ” After all, the Torah could have stated the law more simply: Help your fellow when his animal is collapsing under his burden. The mention of hatred indicates that what is important here to the Torah is not just the net result of aid given but also the state of mind of the giver.
“Perhaps it is for this reason that the Torah bothers to tell us the initial thoughts of the one who sees this animal. He first thinks he will refrain me’azov lo, “from raising it for him.” His first thought is that the action will be solely for the benefit of his enemy. No, says the Torah. Azov ta’azov imo. Imo, “With him,” not “for him.” With him. Together. You will both be benefiting, you as well as he.”

Dr Anisfeld concludes with a story of the Piaseczna Rebbe:**** “[He] is said to have told his young students every Shabbat eve, between every single course, the same exact message – “The most important thing in the world is to do something good for another person.” And when you do, do not think that the only person who is gaining from this do-gooding is the other. It is you. Azov ta’azov imo. Together. When you help another, it changes you, too, lifting both your burdens at the same time.”

*Midrash Tanhuma is the name given to three different collections of Pentateuch aggadot; two are extant, while the third is known only through citations. These midrashim, although bearing the name of R. Tanḥuma, must not be regarded as having been written or edited by him. They were so named merely because they consist partly of homilies originating with him (this being indicated by the introductory formula “Thus began R. Tanḥuma” or “Thus preached R. Tanḥuma”) and partly of homilies by aggadic teachers who followed the style of R. Tanḥuma. It is possible that R. Tanḥuma himself preserved his homilies, and that his collection was used by the editors of the midrash. The three collections were edited at different times.

**Targum Onkelos is the official eastern (Babylonian) targum (Aramaic translation) to the Torah. However, its early origins may have been western, in Israel. Its authorship is attributed to Onkelos, a famous convert to Judaism in Tannaic times (c.35–120 CE).
According to Jewish tradition, the content of Targum Onkelos was originally conveyed by God to Moses at Mount Sinai. However, it was later forgotten by the masses, and rerecorded by Onkelos.
In Talmudic times, Targum Onkelos was recited by heart as a verse-by-verse translation alternately with the Hebrew verses of the Torah in the synagogue. This tradition still exists in Yemenite communities.

***Targum Yonatan is the official eastern (Babylonian) targum (Aramaic translation) to the Nevi’im (Prophets). Its early origins, however, are western i.e. from the Land of Israel, and the Talmudic tradition attributes its authorship to Yonatan ben Uzziel. Its overall style is very similar to that of Targum Onkelos, though at times it seems to be a looser paraphrase.
In Talmudic times and to this day in Yemenite Jewish communities Targum Yonatan was read as a verse-by-verse translation alternatively with the Hebrew verses of the haftarah in the synagogue. This tradition still exists in Yemenite communities.
Thus, when the Talmud states that “a person should complete his portions of scripture along with the community, reading the scripture twice and the targum once” (Berachot 8a-b), the passage may be taken to refer to Targum Onkelos on the Torah as well as Targum Yonatan on the haftarah.

**** The Piaseczna Rebbe, R’ Kalonymus Kalman Shapira (1889–1943) see biographical notes in blogpost of Chayei Sarah 2014 (Sarah’s Cry).

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