After the Torah reading on a Monday or Thursday morning, while the Torah is still out, the congregation offers this prayer on behalf of our Jewish brethren who are in trouble.
אַחֵינוּ כָּל בֵּית יִשְֹרָאֵל. הַנְּתוּנִים בַּצָרָה וּבַשִׁבְיָה. הָעוֹמְדִים בֵּין בַּיָּם וּבֵין בַּיַּבָּשָׁה. הַמָּקוֹם יְרַחֵם עֲלֵיהֶם וְיוֹצִיאֵם מִצָּרָה לִרְוָחָה. וּמֵאֲפֵלָה לְאוֹרָה. וּמִשִּׁעְבּוּד לִגְאֻלָּה. הַשְׁתָּא בַּעֲגָלָא וּבִזְמַן קָרִיב. וְנֹאמַר אָמֵן
Our brothers- the entire Jewish nation- who are in a difficult situation or in captivity, whether they are at sea, or on land, Hashem should have mercy upon them, and take them from difficulty to salvation, from darkness to light, and from servitude to freedom, now, and speedily in our times, and let us say amen.
Why should we pray for people that we don’t even know? What is our connection to them that we care to pray for their welfare? The answer lies in the first words of the prayer, “Our brothers.” The entire Jewish nation is a family, and we are all brothers. Because we are so closely related, we care about each other.
In last week’s portion Yitro (Exodus 19:6), Hashem told us:
(ו) וְאַתֶּם תִּהְיוּ לִי מַמְלֶכֶת כֹּהֲנִים וְגוֹי קָדוֹשׁ
6) You will be for me a “Kingdom of priests and a holy nation.”
As King of the universe, Hashem chose the Jewish nation to be His Kingdom. He is our King and we are His subjects. The Jewish nation is called “בני ישראל” The Children of Israel. We are all descendants of Jacob our forefather also called Yisrael, and are therefore one big family. With that which Hashem chose our family to be His subjects, the Jewish nation became the Royal Family.
So, we are all related and part of the Royal Family, but what makes us brothers, as opposed to cousins many times removed?
The verse in Deuteronomy (14:1) says: You are children to Hashem your G-d.
(א) בָּנִים אַתֶּם לַידֹוָד אֱלֹקֵיכֶם
We are brothers because we all have the same Father, Hashem. Hashem is not only our King, He is also our Father in Heaven.
This is not a metaphor. Hashem really wants us to treat every other Jew like a brother. This is clear from the many laws in the Torah that instruct us to take care of our brother in need. Nothing expresses it more clearly than the verse in Leviticus (19:18):
וְאָהַבְתָּ לְרֵעֲךָ כָּמוֹךָ אֲנִי יְדֹוָד
And you must love your fellow Jew as yourself, I am Hashem.
This verse instructs us to put ourselves in our brother’s shoes, and to project, “If I was in that situation, what would I want to happen? What could someone who wishes to help me, do to get me out of this difficulty?” And then I should go do it for him.
The Torah is replete with laws instructing us to help out our brother in need. Here are but a few.
ספר ויקרא פרק כה
(לה) וְכִי יָמוּךְ אָחִיךָ וּמָטָה יָדוֹ עִמָּךְ וְהֶחֱזַקְתָּ בּוֹ גֵּר וְתוֹשָׁב וָחַי עִמָּךְ
If your brother becomes impoverished, and his means falter in your proximity, you shall strengthen him – proselyte or resident- so that he can live with you. (Leviticus 25:35,36)
(לו) אַל תִּקַּח מֵאִתּוֹ נֶשֶׁךְ וְתַרְבִּית וְיָרֵאתָ מֵאֱלֹהֶיךָ וְחֵי אָחִיךָ עִמָּךְ:
Do not take from him interest and increase, and you shall fear Hashem and let your brother live with you.
Here the Torah is telling us to give him an interest free loan to help him out.
ספר דברים פרק טו
(ז) כִּי יִהְיֶה בְךָ אֶבְיוֹן מֵאַחַד אַחֶיךָ בְּאַחַד שְׁעָרֶיךָ בְּאַרְצְךָ אֲשֶׁר יְדֹוָד אֱלֹהֶיךָ נֹתֵן לָךְ לֹא תְאַמֵּץ אֶת לְבָבְךָ וְלֹא תִקְפֹּץ אֶת יָדְךָ מֵאָחִיךָ הָאֶבְיוֹן
If there shall be a destitute person among you, any of your brethren in any of your cities, in your land that Hashem, your G-d gives you, you shall not harden your heart or close your hand against your destitute brother. (Deuteronomy 15:7, 11)
(יא) כִּי לֹא יֶחְדַּל אֶבְיוֹן מִקֶּרֶב הָאָרֶץ עַל כֵּן אָנֹכִי מְצַוְּךָ לֵאמֹר פָּתֹחַ תִּפְתַּח אֶת יָדְךָ לְאָחִיךָ לַּעֲנִיֶּךָ וּלְאֶבְיֹנְךָ בְּאַרְצֶךָ
For destitute people will not cease to exist within the Land; therefore, I command you, saying, “You shall surely open your hand to your brother, to your poor, and to your destitute in your Land.”
There are other perquisites that accrue to being a MOT (Member of the Tribe).
It makes perfect sense to charge interest when lending money. Why should lending money be different than renting out your car? You are now without the use of your car, because you have given it to someone else. Having the use of a car is worth money, and is something people are happy to pay for. Why should money be different?
The answer is, if your brother needed a loan, and you had extra cash to lend him, would you try to make money on him? He’s your brother! And, it’s not costing you anything, so why not help him out?
The same applies to returning a Jew’s lost object. The rule in the world is “Losers weepers, finders keepers.” I found it fair and square. I didn’t take it from him! He lost it, and I found it. But if you found your brother’s wallet, would you keep it? He’s your brother! Why wouldn’t you help him out and return it to him. It will cost you nothing!
With the many laws that apply to Jews only, Hashem is urging us to support and strengthen our brothers in need.
The Torah instructs us to lend a helping hand to a brother in two other situations as well. These are the mitzvot of unloading and loading an animal.
The mitzvah to help one unload his animal is in this week’s portion (Exodus 23:5):
(ה) כִּי תִרְאֶה חֲמוֹר שׂנַאֲךָ רֹבֵץ תַּחַת מַשָּׂאוֹ וְחָדַלְתָּ מֵעֲזֹב לוֹ עָזֹב תַּעֲזֹב עִמּוֹ
5) If you see the donkey of someone you hate crouching under his burden, would you refrain from helping him? – you shall help repeatedly, with him.
As you are walking down the street, you see someone’s donkey collapsing under its burden, and its owner is in the process of removing the excess weight from it. You must help him unload the donkey. Even though he will get the job done over time, you are obligated to help him relieve the stress of the animal as quickly as possible. This is because the Torah is concerned about the pain of the animal. One is not allowed to cause pain to an animal unnecessarily.
There is something very peculiar in this verse. Why did the Torah choose the example of “someone you hate?” Why didn’t the Torah talk about a friend or even a stranger?
The Targum Unkolus (Aramaic translation of the Torah) provides the answer. Here is his translation of the verse.
(ה) ארי תחזי חמרא דסנאך רביע תחות טועניה ותתמנע מלמשבק ליה משבק תשבוק מה דבלבך עלוהי ותפרק עמה
When you see the donkey of someone you hate struggling under its burden, and you want to refrain from helping him, leave aside what is in your heart on him, and unload with him.
The Midrash says:
מדרש רבה בראשית – פרשה מד פסקה א
רב אמר לא נתנו המצות אלא לצרף בהן את הבריות
Rav said, “The sole purpose for the mitzvot is to refine people.”
Because I don’t get along very well with this fellow- I think he is really a bad person- the last thing in the world I want to do is to help him. I may actually feel a little tickle inside seeing him in a difficult situation, thinking “it serves him right for being such a bad guy.” Yet, the Torah commands me to put aside my grievance and help him unload his donkey, with a full heart. I must overcome my natural inclination not to help this person and do so against my will. This is real work! This is the stuff that builds a person into a holy person.
There is a deeper level to this.
The Talmud (Pesachim 113b) asks the following question. How is it possible for a Jew to hate another Jew? There is a verse (Leviticus 19:17) in the Torah that prohibits a Jew from hating another Jew even in his heart. Why would the Torah speak about a person who is not keeping the laws of the Torah?
(יז) לֹא תִשְׂנָא אֶת אָחִיךָ בִּלְבָבֶךָ
17) Do not hate your brother in your heart.
The Talmud answers that the person is legally permitted to hate this person. The reason for this is, that he previously saw him about to commit a sin, and warned him, but he did it anyway. Therefore, because the person is a scofflaw and an enemy of Hashem, it is permissible to hate him. The lesson here is that even though you are legally permitted to hate this person, you must still put it aside and help him. This seems counterintuitive. Why would the Torah demand that of me? The answer lies in an even more counterintuitive law.
The mitzvah to help one load up his animal is in Deuteronomy (22:4) and it says:
(ד) לֹא תִרְאֶה אֶת חֲמוֹר אָחִיךָ אוֹ שׁוֹרוֹ נֹפְלִים בַּדֶּרֶךְ וְהִתְעַלַּמְתָּ מֵהֶם הָקֵם תָּקִים עִמּוֹ:
4) You shall not see the donkey of your brother or his ox failing on the road and hide yourself from them: you shall surely stand them up, with him.
As you are walking down the street, you see a fellow Jew’s donkey that has lost its load and its owner is struggling to put the packages back on the donkey, you are obligated to help him load up the donkey. The Talmud asserts that one may charge for this service.
The Talmud (Babba Metzia 32b) cites an interesting scenario.
תא שמע אוהב לפרוק ושונא לטעון מצוה בשונא כדי לכוף את יצרו ואי סלקא דעתך צער בעלי חיים דאורייתא הא עדיף ליה אפילו הכי כדי לכוף את יצרו עדיף
What is the law if a man encounters his friend’s animal collapsing under its load, and his enemy’s animal that needs to be loaded up? He can help only one of the two, so which one should he help?
He must help his enemy load up his animal instead of helping his friend unload his animal. The reasoning behind this law is that since in helping his enemy he will have to overcome his natural evil inclination not to help him, it is more difficult, hence a greater mitzvah.
The Sages pose a question. How could loading up the animal be a greater mitzvah than unloading the animal? When the animal is overloaded, it is suffering in pain until it is relieved of its burden. So, while the fellow is loading up his enemy’s donkey, his friend’s donkey continues to suffer under its load. Since the Torah is sensitive to the pain of animals, wouldn’t it want him to relieve the animal of its suffering first?
The answer to this question provides us with a deep insight into our purpose on this earth.
Man was the last creature that Hashem created. When Adam “woke up,” he found the entire world complete and ready to serve him. The Midrash tells us (Rabba Koheles 7:19):
בשעה שברא הקב”ה את אדם הראשון נטלו והחזירו על כל אילני גן עדן ואמר לו ראה מעשי כמה נאים ומשובחין הן וכל מה שבראתי בשבילך בראתי תן דעתך שלא תקלקל ותחריב את עולמי
When Hashem created Adam, He took him around and showed him all the trees in the Garden of Eden. Hashem then told him, “You see how beautiful and perfect my creations are? I created them all only for you! Make sure you don’t ruin and destroy my world by sinning.”
This sums it up pretty succinctly. Hashem gave man free reign on the world to use for his growth. He may use all the different elements of the world as he pleases as tools to serve Hashem. At the same time, he must resist the temptation to use them in a way that Hashem has deemed inappropriate. That would be a sin and bring destruction to the world.
Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzato writes in Pathway of the Just (Chapter 1).
נמצינו למדים, כי עיקר מציאות האדם בעולם הזה הוא רק לקיים מצוות ולעבוד ולעמוד בנסיון
We have learned that the purpose of man in this world is only to perform Hashem’s mitzvot, and to serve him and to stand up to the challenges that seek to stop him from doing those things.
This is why conquering the evil inclination within himself to help his enemy load up his donkey trumps unloading his friend’s donkey, even though the donkey is in distress and requires relief. The donkey was created to help man grow closer to Hashem, and since its suffering will help the person grow closer to Hashem by conquering his evil inclination, it is warranted. This is the purpose for which we were placed in this world.
Rabbi Yaakov Galinsky, זצ”ל (of blessed memory) was once asked this question by one of his teachers. “If there are five burning candles and you extinguish two, how many are left?” He knew that his teacher was not asking a simple subtraction problem of 5-2=3, so he didn’t respond. The teacher repeated the question, “If there are five burning candles, and you extinguish two, how many are left?” When Rabbi Galinsky did not answer, the rebbe told him. “Two are left. The other three burn down to nothing and are no more, but the two extinguished candles remain standing.” The rebbe explained. This is a metaphor for how we grow and become great people. “It is the fires that we extinguish within ourselves that become the fiber of what we are made of and who we are.”
In other words, when a person has a burning desire to do something forbidden, yet he extinguishes that fire by subduing his nature and does not give in to it, he has just created a building block within himself making him a greater person. These victories over his natural inclinations become the fabric of his essence; he has created it within himself through his fortitude and willpower. A person doesn’t grow by doing what he finds easy and comfortable. Rather, the exact opposite is true: A person grows only via overcoming the obstacles and challenges in his way. These constant and consistent decisions to do the right thing, create within him a strong moral constitution that grows greater and stronger with every decision.
In both of these cases the Torah is careful to specify that you must help “with him.” This teaches us that you are only obligated to help as long as he continues to work beside you, but if he should say, “You have a mitzvah to do here, so I am going to take a break,” you have no obligation to continue loading or unloading. You are not his worker, you are his helper.
Rabbi Nosson Tzvi Finkel זצ”ל (of blessed memory) the Sabba of Slabodka once asked one of his students shortly after he was married, “Do you help your wife prepare for Shabbat?”
“Of course!” Replied the student. “The Sages instructed us to take part in the preparations for Shabbat to show our respect for the Shabbat.”
Rabbi Finkel smiled and said to him. “The only reason to help your wife for Shabbat is to honor the Shabbat? What about the mitzvah in the Torah to help a man load or unload his donkey? How much more so do you have to help your wife, who has so many things to do for Shabbat and has a deadline by which they must be done! Is there a greater mitzvah to help a fellow Jew than this?”
We see from this story that the mitzvah to load or unload doesn’t apply only to an animal with burdens. It is an example we are to learn from and apply where appropriate. Consider all the opportunities there are to overcome our natural laziness and evil inclination to help others and especially your spouse. You could help bring the groceries in from the car, put them away, clean up the toys, sort and put away the laundry; the possibilities are endless. Remember also, that the more difficult it is to offer the help, the greater the reward! If we would apply these two mitzvot to all areas of our lives we would make a major dent in our evil inclinations and build ourselves into great people. That’s exactly what Hashem wants us to do!