Mishpatim: Learning the Ways of Kindness

Copyright 2014 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Mishpatim

“When you see the ass of your enemy lying under its burden and would refrain from raising it, you must nevertheless raise it with him.”  (Shemot/ Exodus 23:5)

Shalom to one and all!

I have been out on family leave due to the arrival of new baby Goldschmidt (name to be announced soon) in early December. I’m glad to be back now with a little tidbit of Torah commentary for this week’s portion, Mishpatim, which by its very name suggests that the major theme is laws for a just society. (Mishpat is a just law; a shofet is a judge, same root.)

Yet the verse above is hard to justify in terms of setting out the rules for a fair society- why should I care if somebody else’s animal is struggling? Do I really have a positive duty to help anybody with this sort of problem? There might be no end to it!

That makes sense from the perspective of American law, which is often concerned with rights and liberty (but not enough, I’d say). Jewish law, on the other hands, is often more concerned with our obligations towards others than our right to be left alone, and in this case, the law is very specifically aimed at improving the moral character of those who would obey it. Note that the law specifies seeing the animal of your “enemy,” and yet you must help him. (We might also note that you’re helping the animal be more comfortable too, and surely the donkey doesn’t have a share in your conflict with its owner!)

Sefer HaHinnuch, the medieval textbook of the commandments, suggests that the reason for the law is to “train our souls in the way of kindness.” This is very profound: we might not ever decide, without the nudging of a mitzvah, to help another on the street (even more so someone we don’t like) but doing the action changes us from within. It isn’t always kindness that brings about the action- it is the action that brings about kindness, for when we see even our enemy as another person, struggling with their animals and work and responsibilities and hassles just as we do, how can we fail to soften our souls and become more compassionate? Yet we would never see them in their full humanity without the intimate encounter of rendering assistance. By pushing us to interact with people right where they are, we learn to be people of mercy, for we may see even our enemy as a full human being, created in the Divine Image, and as deserving of love as ourselves.

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

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