"The issue before the voters this election day," concludes the paid advertisement on the radio, "can be summarized as follows: Should we, as a society, be obligated to help those that can help themselves, but don't?!"
"The issue before the voters this election day," concludes the paid advertisement on the radio, "can be summarized as follows: Should we, as a society, be obligated to help those that can help themselves, but don't?!" It sounds like a pretty convincing argument, you think to yourself as you pull into your driveway after work that evening.
Around the supper table the discussion becomes intense. The issue of government support of those who make no apparent effort to work for a living seems to have passionate supporters on both sides. Some of your children argue for helping them based on the concepts of chesed (kindness) and rachamim (mercy) which are so central in the Torah. Other children point out that this cannot qualify as chesed or rachamim because in the long run, it keeps people from standing on their own two feet and it destroys their sense of self-dignity.
The discussion is cut short when you leave for your weekly class on the Torah portion. Rabbi Pshatsky always manages to make his classes so fascinating and relevant that you hurry to the class to find a seat. This week is no exception. The room is packed and everyone listens keenly as he begins: "Since this class did not meet last week, I'd like to focus on some messages from last week's Torah portion. Parshat Mishpatim is an elaborate lesson on how we can succeed in our relationships with others."
As he continues his presentation, he arrives at an odd verse: "If you see the donkey of someone you hate lying under its load, you shall refrain from helping him, you must make every effort to help him unload it" (Exodus 23:5). There are many questions that swirl through your mind as you listen to this verse, but the most obvious one is the clear contradiction. The verse begins by saying that you should refrain from helping him, yet concludes by saying that you must make every effort to help him.
Rabbi Pshatsky calls our attention to Rashi, the fundamental commentator on the Torah, who explains that the middle part of the verse should be read slightly differently -You shall refrain from helping him?! No! You must make every effort to help him. Nonetheless, it seems odd that the Torah would describe this mitzvah in such an ambiguous way. Rabbi Pshatsky answers not only that question, but also the deeper one that has been on your mind since you heard the advertisement earlier that evening.
The Torah leaves the verse open to the interpretation that sometimes you can and should refrain from helping him. When is that appropriate? When he doesn't help you get the animal unloaded, but expects you instead to "carry the burden" yourself. When he expends effort to unload the animal but can't do it by himself, of course we are commanded to help him. However, if he sits on the side, expecting only you to burn some calories, then refrain from helping him. You're not helping him, yourself, nor society with your misguided desire to help.
The next day, as you cast your ballot, you no longer have any doubts about how to help those who don't want to help themselves.
Based on the Kli Yakar, a classic 16th commentary on the Torah.
Rabbi Ariel Asa is an educator at Torah Day School of Atlanta and director of the Mitzvah Depot which incorporates Brit Milah, Shatnez checking, and Safrut (dealing with Torah scrolls, tefillin, and mezuzot).
You are invited to read more Parshat Terumah articles.
Would you recommend this article to a friend? Let us know by sending an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org