Parshas Mishpatim 5758
One Step Back - Two Steps Forward
Volume 4 Issue 20
by Rabbi Mordechai Kamenetzky
Among the complicated fiduciary matters that this week's portion discusses,
the Torah deals with seemingly simple and mundane issues as well. The
Torah talks about donkeys. Heavily laden donkeys that belong to your enemy.
The Torah tells us, "if you see the donkey of someone you hate and you
refrain from assisting him, you shall repeatedly help him" (Exodus 23:5).
Obviously the interjected phrase "and you refrain from assisting him" begs
clarification. After all, if you mustn't refrain from helping him, why
mention it in the first place? Rashi explains that the words are to be
read rhetorically, "Would you refrain from helping him? How can you let a
personal grudge take precedence over the poor animal's pain? Surely you
shall continuously help him." The Talmud (Bava Metzia 32) takes the words
at face value and explains that there are actually certain situations where
one must actually refrain from helping unload donkeys. I would also like to
offer the verse at face value.
As a youngster, I heard the following story about the great mussar
luminary, Rabbi Yisrael Salanter. Rabbi Salanter was traveling by train
from Salant to Vilna and was sitting in a smoking car holding a lit cigar.
A young man accosted him by yelling about the putrid odor of the smoke.
Other passengers were appalled. After all, they were in the smoking car.
Despite that, Rabbi Salanter extinguished the cigar and opened the train's
window to dissipate the fumes. It was only a few seconds before the young
man slammed the window down, while screaming at the elderly sage for
opening it. Rabbi Salanter apologized profusely to the man young enough to
be his child, and buried himself in a Jewish book of law.
Upon arriving in Vilna, the young man was horrified to see throngs of
people gathered to receive one of Europe's most prominent Rabbis. The man
immediately ran to the home where Rabbi Salanter was staying. He began to
beg forgiveness. "Don't worry," explained Reb Yisrael, "a trip can make
one edgy. I bear no ill will. Tell me," continued the mussar master, "why
did you come to Vilna?"
The young man explained that he was looking to become an ordained shochet,
(slaughterer), and an approbation from a Vilna rabbi would be universally
accepted. Rabbi Salanter smiled. "My own son-in-law, Reb Elya Lazer, can
ordain you. He is a Rav in Vilna. Rest up and tomorrow you can take the test.
The next day, it was apparent that the man needed more than rest, for he
failed miserably. However, that did not deter Rabbi Salanter. He
encouraged the man to try again. For the next several weeks, Rabbi Yisrael
arranged for tutors and prepared the young man well enough to pass Reb Elya
Lazer's make-up exam along with the tests of a host of other well-known
Vilna rabbis. He even arranged for the man to get a job.
Before leaving Vilna, the man appeared before Reb Yisrael with tears in his
eyes. "Tell me, Rebbe," he cried. "I was able to understand that you
could forgive me for my terrible arrogance on the train. But why did you
help me so much? That, I can never understand."
"Reb Yisrael sat him down, held his hand and explained. "It is easy to say
'I forgive you'. But deep down, how does one really know if he still bears
a grudge? Way down in my heart I actually was not sure. The only way to
remove a grudge is to take action. One who helps another develops a love
for the one he aided. By helping you, I created a true love which is
overwhelmingly more powerful than the words, 'I forgive you'."
The Torah tells us that if you see the donkey of your enemy keeling from
its burden and you want to refrain from helping, know then, that now is the
time to help. The minute your feet falter, then it is time to quicken the
pace, overpower your emotions and make a move. The Torah understands human
nature all too well. The sub-conscience speaks very loudly and often tells
us to take three steps backwards. That is the time to make a move that
will heal old wounds and close open sores. Overpowering kindness will not
only help ease burdens off a donkey, it will make things a lot lighter for
you as well.
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