If you come upon your enemy's bull or his stray donkey, you shall surely return it to him. If you see your enemy's donkey lying under its burden would you refrain from helping him? You shall surely help along with him. – Exodus 23:4-5 (The Judaica Press Tanach)
The verse comes from the Torah portion following the giving of the Ten Commandments. Parashat Mishpatim gives us many of the details related to following the foundational commandments from the two tablets. Though I have never had occasion to live next to someone with a bull or donkey, the lesson doesn’t escape me.
Though I’m not always fond of the yappy little dogs of the next door neighbor, I know I have the responsibility to help get them back to their owners if they get out of the yard or are lost. As you can see, my feelings about the neighbor’s dogs are a little conflicted. I guess this is where mussar comes in to give me some guidance. In life, we tend to be most aware of things we care about. Our attention is tuned to perceive and process the information around us that is in our personal interest. The teaching from Exodus gives us the purest instruction from Sinai, but it doesn’t take into account human nature. The same instruction is elaborated by Moses in his instructions recorded in Devarim (Deuteronomy). Tradition states that Moses wrote these words in the last weeks of his life, after spending a long life trying to understand himself and his people.
You shall not see your brother's ox or sheep straying, and ignore them. [Rather,] you shall return them to your brother. But if your brother is not near you, or if you do not know him, you shall bring it into your house, and it shall be with you until your brother seeks it out, whereupon you shall return it to him. So shall you do with his donkey, and so shall you do with his garment, and so shall you do with any lost article of your brother which he has lost and you have found. You shall not ignore [it]. You shall not see your brother's donkey or his ox fallen [under its load] on the road, and ignore them. [Rather,] you shall pick up [the load] with him. – Deut. 22:1-4 (The Judaica Press Tanach)
This passage adds some important examples and highlights a core weakness of humanity. There are three distinct warnings not to ignore the plight of your neighbor and her/his property. The root word (עָלַם) used for “ignore” means “to veil from sight, conceal”. The warning teaches us an important lesson in awareness. Torah commands us not only to be aware of our own behavior and circumstance; we need to tune our perception and awareness so we will know when those around us need our help. There are often times when we see something amiss around us. Our first inclination may be to ignore it, pretend it didn’t happen or that the problem doesn’t exist. We think it will be “easier” if we just didn’t know, then we aren’t responsible. This is the insight into human nature that Moses wants to point out to us. We often run from responsibility because it is inconvenient. Maybe Moses wants us to reflect back to the story of Abel and Cain and show us that we truly are our brother’s keeper and we need to take an active role in caring for those around us.
The Talmud tells of a certain rabbi who found a chicken. He sold the eggs and bought another chicken, then a goat and sold the milk, and then a lamb and sold the wool. A year later, a man appeared seeking his lost chicken and received a barn full of animals. This of course, was going above the absolute call of duty.
We are exhorted to go above and beyond the call of duty when it comes to our awareness of the needs around us. Yeshua had pure insight into the needs of those around him, going beyond the physical and perceiving the spiritual and emotional needs as well.
On the day of Shabbat, he was teaching in a certain synagogue. A woman in whom there was a spirit of disease for eighteen years was bent over and unable to stand with a straight posture. Yeshua saw and called to her. He said to her, "Woman, be freed from your disease." He placed his hands upon her, and instantly she arose and stood upright and praised God. The leader of the synagogue became upset that Yeshua had healed her on Shabbat, so he responded and said to the people, "There are six days on which you may do labor. Come and be healed on them, but not on the day of Shabbat? The Master answered and said to him,
Hypocrite! Will not any one of you untie his ox or donkey from the stable on Shabbat and lead him to get a drink? But here we have a daughter of Avraham whom the satan has bound for these eighteen years. Will she not be released from what binds her on the day of Shabbat?
When he said these words, all who were standing against him were ashamed, and all of the people rejoiced about all of the wonders that were performed by him. -- Luke 13:10-17, DHE
Yeshua teaches an important lesson. There is no time like the present to be aware of the plight of others and to free them from it as quickly as possible. He references our lesson from Torah to show that all creatures, small and great, deserve immediate compassion. We may not ignore their plight or delay their redemption from it. Whether our attention is to the smallest of creatures, like a ladybug, the yappy dogs next door, or the person in need, it is our duty to heighten our awareness and be diligent in coming to their aid.
Gospel references taken from Delitzsch Hebrew Gospels (DHE)®, © Copyright Vine of David 2010. Used by permission.