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PLEASE PHRASE IT IN THE FORM OF A QUESTION

by Rabbi Elie Cohen    
Torah from Dixie Staff Writer    

The Torah states, "When you shall see the donkey of your adversary [literally, 'the one who hates you'] crouching beneath its load and you shall refrain from helping him, you shall surely help him" (Exodus 23:5).

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The Torah states, "When you shall see the donkey of your adversary [literally, 'the one who hates you'] crouching beneath its load and you shall refrain from helping him, you shall surely help him" (Exodus 23:5). The verse doesn't seem to make sense. First, the Torah commands, "you shall refrain from helping him," and then it continues, "you shall surely help him." Rashi, an 11th-century French commentator, elegantly solves the puzzle with a question mark. He reads the verse as follows: When you shall see the donkey of your adversary crouching beneath its load, you will refrain from helping him? You shall surely help him." (Note: In Biblical Hebrew, the terms meaning "you shall refrain" and "you will refrain" are one and the same, only distinguishable by context.)

It appears, though, that this interpretation is not entirely satisfying. Wouldn't the verse have been complete without the question in the middle? The Torah, unmatched in its economy of words, could just as easily have written, "When you shall see the donkey of your adversary crouching beneath its load, you shall surely help him!"

Perhaps the simplest approach is as follows. The Torah is not just teaching us a law. It is teaching us an attitude. The Torah's question, "you will refrain from helping him?" is expressing to us that even though the person in need is an adversary, one should not only help the person, but have a sincere desire to help him.

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Rabbi Elie Cohen, who lived in Atlanta, is currently studying at Ner Israel Rabbinical College in Baltimore.

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