Thursday, February 16, 2012

The Question of the Van

Philosophically, one might debate whether the mitzvah of helping unload the overburdened donkey of one’s enemy is applicable to a more modern day situation of assisting one’s enemy with a broken down van. The Torah states:

“If you see the donkey of him that you hate lying under its burden, you shall forbear to pass by him; you shall surely release it with him” (Exodus 23:5).

Perhaps to better understand the philosophical dilemma one must dissect this verse carefully and determine whom this mitzvah is intended to benefit. Many read this line as an example of the Torah’s concern for the well being of animals. The rules against tza'ar ba'alei chaim, causing undue pain to an animal, are fairly comprehensive. One needs to be sensitive to the needs of animals, so much so, that one must make certain that one’s animals are fed before one is permitted to eat. If this is the purpose of the mitzvah, then it would not apply to a modern day van.

On the other hand, this commandment may be an example of a mitzvah bein adam l’chavero, between a person and his/her fellow. Becoming a better person means overlooking one’s personal feelings when it comes to helping another person. Walking past the broken-down van of a person one dislikes and not helping, goes against the basic positive character traits that the laws of the Torah try to develop.

And finally, this mitzvah may be seen as a way to underscore the need for personal development. It is said that through the act of giving to an enemy, one may come to love the enemy. In this case, there is no question that this mitzvah is very applicable today, even to those who don’t own a donkey.

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