Our Torah portion this week comes on the heels of the climactic event at Sinai. After receiving the 10 Commandments, our ancestors are introduced to an enormous body of general laws concerning the governance of daily life. In midst of this corpus of legal material, one law stands out in terms of its content and application for our lives today. In Exodus 23, verse 5 we read:
“When you see your enemy’s donkey struggling under a burden, you will hesitate to help lift it up, but nevertheless you must help him to raise it.”
A first reading of this law will likely render it to be archaic to the modern reader. Few of us have enemies with donkeys, so what are we to make of this unusual commandment and how might we apply it to our lives today?
Donkey’s aside, this commandment is both insightful and clear. While there will always be a human tendency to hesitate to help an enemy, the Torah implores us to resist the temptation to turn away and tell us to silence the vengeful voice within. Through this commandment the Torah reminds us to see others (even our enemies) as humans first and prompts us to go out of our way to do what is right.
This passage serves to remind us that our obligations to act in ethical ways are not to be compromised by the fact that we may or may not like the recipients of a mitzvah. Therefore, when it comes to doing the right thing, each of us must strive to suppress the impulse to turn from our neighbors. A mitzvah is a mitzvah regardless of who may be the beneficiary of our actions.