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 to assist, there is no obligation to assist. In such an instance we would read the verse differently. “You shall refrain from helping him” is the appropriate action. Rather than reading the phrase as a question – would you refrain from helping him?, the phrase is a statement. The Torah only demands one’s aid when one is helping with the owner, but not when one becomes the lackey of the owner.
Rabbi Luntschitz goes on to explain that street beggars may well fall under the same category. When an individual works the streets soliciting donations when he is capable of supporting himself through honest work there is no obligation to help him. That is not a case of shouldering the burden with him. Only when one is unable to support himself through work does the obligation to come to his aid apply. In most cases we would not have enough information to gauge whether a beggar is indeed unable to support himself or if he is taking advantage of people’s generosity. It remains our responsibility to give the benefit of the doubt unless we know otherwise. But the principle is an important one. The obligation is not merely to help, but to help alongside the person in need. There are times when we all need assistance of one kind or another. We must be certain that we own the struggle and we do everything we can to help ourselves. Others will come to our aid, but we must not abdicate our efforts and leave the burden to others.