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CONCERNED FOR OTHERS

by Mendel Starkman    
Torah from Dixie Staff Writer    

Every mitzvah in the Torah can be placed in one of two categories. Namely, mitzvot bein adam lamakom - mitzvot between man and G-d and mitzvot bein adam l'chaveiro - mitzvot that involve interaction with other people.

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Every mitzvah in the Torah can be placed in one of two categories. Namely, mitzvot bein adam lamakom - mitzvot between man and G-d (i.e. eating kosher, keeping Shabbat, and reciting blessings) which have no direct effect on other people; and mitzvot bein adam l'chaveiro - mitzvot that involve interaction with other people and the sensitivities involved in those laws.

In this week's Torah portion, we read several ideas that reflect on the category of mitzvot between man and his fellow man. The Torah commands us to shoo away a mother bird before taking her eggs or chicks (ibid. 22:6). The Ramban, one of the greatest leaders and Torah commentaries of the Middle Ages, explains that one of the reasons for this commandment is so that we do not develop within ourselves a trait of cruelty by grossly causing discomfort to the mother bird by allowing her to witness the taking of her young.

The Torah also commands us not to plow with an ox and a donkey together (ibid. 22:10). The Da'as Zekeinim, a collection of comments on the Torah by the Tosafist school of the 12th and 13th centuries, explains that one of the reasons for this prohibition may be the fact that an ox chews its cud, whereas a donkey does not. Imagine the pain which the donkey would feel if, while they are both hungry for rest and nutrition as they labor side by side under the yolk, the donkey would turn his head and see the ox chewing its cud. "When did he get food," the donkey would be thinking, pained by the fact that the ox has food and he does not.

In both of these scenarios, as well as in numerous other places, the Torah is teaching us an incredible lesson in the sensitivity that we must have in recognizing - and preventing - the distress and discomfort of others. If the Torah can be so demanding about how sensitive we are to these animals, how much more so must we be sensitive to other people.

Rabbi Paysach Krohn, a popular author and lecturer, expresses this idea in his book, "In the Footsteps of the Maggid" (pg. 142). He includes the following true story which exemplifies how far we must go to prevent another person's discomfort: There was once a man who always carried around a roll of quarters. No one knew why, but after he passed away, someone revealed the reason. At the place where this man prayed, poor people would often come around, asking for contributions. This man realized that if he were to take out a dollar and then ask for change, the poor person would feel a momentary surge of excitement at the prospect of being given a whole dollar. Then, when change would be requested, that excitement would revert to disappointment. In order to avoid the poor person's momentary discomfort, this man would walk around with a roll of quarters, so he would always have the proper change when it was needed.

This story should serve as an example of how extremely sensitive we must be to the feelings of others, constantly striving to prevent them from experiencing any unnecessary discomfort. When someone needs a helping hand, no matter how big or how small, it is our duty to offer it. For if the Torah can be so concerned about a donkey's temporary discomfort, we are certainly expected to go out of our way to help a person in need. And if we must be so careful to prevent someone from suffering, even from the momentary disappointment that a poor person would feel when realizing that he will only be given a percentage of what he was anticipating, how much more so must we not be the instigators of that discomfort by humiliating, ridiculing, or disparaging others.

Through this awareness, may we be able to fulfill all of the mitzvot - both those between man and Hashem and those between man and his fellow man - with the proper sensitivity and respect for one another.

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Mendel Starkman, a native Atlantan, is attending the Yeshiva Chafetz Chaim in Jerusalem.

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