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Soul Matters

Mishpatim (Exodus 21-24 )

by Rabbi Ari Kahn

As the Parsha begins, the awe of Sinai can still be felt; the words, the sights and the sounds are still fresh in the peoples' memory. Aside from receiving the Torah, the experience at Sinai was transformative on several levels: the Nation of Israel was formed through the shared experiences of the Exodus and the Revelation, and the unity of purpose and destiny was brought into focus at the foot of the mountain. This unity was, in fact, a prerequisite for receiving the Torah and for the covenant they forged, as a nation, with God, succinctly expressed in their declaration, "We will do and we will listen."(1)

And yet, in Parshat Mishpatim (which immediately follows Yitro, the Parsha in which this covenant is formed), a shift occurs. The statutes in this week's Parsha seem to express a far less lofty and idealistic reality. In a clear concession to the frailty of human character, the laws in Parshat Mishpatim deal with slavery, verbal abuse of parents, altercations, and interpersonal discord - even to the point of hatred. The contrast with Parshat Yitro is striking, even when we take the larger view of the Ten Commandments as "macro categories" of law, and Mishpatim as a detailed discussion of "micro laws". We cannot help but sense devolution from the lofty strata of interpersonal and religious sensibility the people experienced at Sinai.

A case in point is the contrast between the Commandment against jealousy in Parshat Yitro, versus the laws in Parshat Mishpatim that speak of enemies and hatred:

If you chance upon your enemy's ox or his donkey going astray, you shall surely bring it back to him. If you see the donkey of one whom you hate lying under its burden, you shall refrain from leaving him [to bear the burden]; you shall help him to lift it up. (Shmot 23:4-5)

Who would have thought that after the elevated and elevating communal and religious experience at Sinai we would need laws to regulate behavior between people who hate one another? Who would have thought that members of the community that was forged at Sinai could consider themselves enemies? Unfortunately, this seems to reflect a realistic appraisal of human nature, and the Torah contains guidelines for human interaction even in such an undesirable eventuality.

Close examination of this law may give us insight into much larger questions of Torah law and philosophy. The verses speak rather amorphously of "the one you hate," "your enemy." There is no explanation of these negative feelings, no backdrop to the animosity. This leads us to two possible conclusions: First, the object of these negative feelings is a sinner, who is undeserving of our love.(2) His own shortcomings cause others to distance themselves and reject him. The other possibility is that we hate because of our own shortcomings; we lash out at the innocent, projecting our self-hatred elsewhere. If the latter is the case, and our hatred is due to our own shortcomings, we can readily understand why the Torah would instruct us to transcend our own pettiness.(3) Yet the Talmud states that the Torah is, in fact, addressing a case where the object of hatred is in fact a sinner, and treating such a sinner as a hated enemy might then be justified:

R. Shmuel son of R. Yitzhak said in Rav's name: It is permissible to hate him, as it is said (Shmot 23), 'If you see the donkey of your enemy lying under its burden.' Now which enemy is meant? Shall we say, a gentile enemy? It was taught: The enemy of whom they spoke is an Israelite enemy, not a gentile enemy. Hence it obviously means an Israelite enemy. But is it permitted to hate him? Surely it is written (Vayikra 19), 'You shall not hate your brother in your heart'! Again, if there are witnesses that any Jew transgressed, all agree that he should be hated! Why is this particular person singled out? Hence it must surely apply to such a case where he had seen something indecent in him. R. Nahman b. Yitzhak said: It is a duty to hate him, as it is written (Mishlei 8), "God's commandment is to hate wickedness." (Talmud Bavli Pesachim 113b)

* * *


Even when hatred is justified, when the owner of the donkey is a sinner, the Torah obligates us to lend a helping hand. The Talmud explores the rationale of this commandment, but in order to fully understand the sages' conclusion, an introduction is necessary: The context is a larger discussion regarding a person's responsibility to assist the owners of beasts of burden. If two people need help at the same time, one to load a donkey, and the other to unload a donkey, unloading takes precedence. The reasoning is straightforward: the donkey that has completed its work should be unburdened immediately; every additional second that it stands with the load on its back will constitute unnecessary pain. The Talmud's reasoning in this matter establishes a Torah mandate against tza'ar ba'alei haim - causing pain to animals. According to Torah law, man is permitted to ride on an animal or use it to carry a weight, but only if there is a justifiable human need. Once the animal has completed its task, it would be a mitzvah to help the owner unload the animal's burden. On the other hand, loading the burden on the donkey's back would also be a good deed; this helps the owner start his task. The principle that is established is that unloading takes precedence over loading, because the pain of the animal tips the scales in favor of unloading the donkey. Our verse, which commands us to help even an enemy unload his donkey, is thus taken to mean that even when there is a justified reason to dislike a fellow Jew, there is no reason for an innocent animal to suffer due to its owner's indiscretions.

* * *


Up to this point, the Talmudic discussion is relatively straightforward, but the discussion does not end there. The Talmud goes on to teach a law which is completely counterintuitive.(4) The case involves two animals, one in need of loading and the other unloading; as we have seen, unloading takes precedence. This is so even if the one who needs help loading is a friend and the one who needs unloading is an enemy: unloading takes precedence, out of consideration for the suffering of the animal. If, however, the donkey in need of unloading is owned by a friend and the donkey that needs loading is an enemy, the Talmud rules against this principle:

Come and hear: If a friend requires unloading, and an enemy loading, one's [first] obligation is towards his enemy... (Talmud Bavli Bava Metziah 32b)

If in fact tza'ar ba'alei haim - causing animals pain - is a Torah prohibition, how can we justify giving precedence to loading the enemy's donkey? The Talmudic discussion does not leave this seemingly strange ruling open-ended:

Come and hear: If a friend requires unloading, and an enemy loading, one's [first] obligation is towards his enemy in order to subdue his evil inclination. Now if you should think that relieving the suffering of an animal is Biblically enjoined, surely the opposite is preferable! Even so, the motive, 'in order to subdue the evil inclination,' is more compelling. (Talmud Bavli Bava Metziah 32b)

The rationale offered for this ruling is not immediately understood; how does the evil inclination come into the picture? If there is a mitzvah to help unload an animal's burden, why would the evil inclination need to be suppressed?(5)

Let us consider the psychological or emotional state of the protagonist of these hypothetical cases: A man sees two people who need his help; one is his friend, who needs help unloading a heavy burden from his donkey, and the other, his enemy, needs help loading a burden onto his donkey. This should be a very simple decision: help the friend (and the suffering animal). But the Talmud goes deeper, examining the emotions behind the action: How does our "hero" feel when he is not helping his enemy? Would he feel that he has missed out on something he would very much have wanted to do because the Torah has commanded him to unload another's burden, or would he feel justified in his feelings of hatred? Would he get satisfaction from the thought that the Torah has enabled him to turn a cold shoulder to his enemy? Would his yetzer tov, his 'good inclination,' be at work helping his friend, or would his yetzer hara, his 'evil inclination,' be satisfied that his enemy is left to fend for himself? Would helping his friend and fulfilling the letter of the law, while reveling in his enemy's distress, help create a more refined human being?

It is not hard to imagine this man's amusement and satisfaction with the "beauty of Torah" as he helps his friend unload the donkey and watches (or is at least aware of) his enemy laboriously loading a heavy burden unassisted. Which of the two opposing poles of human nature would be satisfied - the yetzer tov (good inclination) or the yetzer hara (evil inclination)? Would his seemingly-righteous act bring him closer to God, or would it reinforce the selfish and self-righteous tendencies that all men possess, distancing him from God?

The Talmud's answer is clear. Even when serving God, even when fulfilling a Torah commandment, we must always strive to perfect ourselves and thus become closer to God. If the evil inclination is strengthened by a mitzvah, something has gone fundamentally wrong. Thus, in this case, although there is a commandment to help unload the donkey, there is a higher consideration:(6) The purpose of all of Torah is to perfect man and society.(7)

* * *


The Talmudic ruling which seemed so strange is an antidote to what may be called "losing sight of the forest by fixating on each and every tree". Parshat Mishpatim teaches us many mitzvot, and there is a risk of getting lost in the commandments, losing sight of the overall purpose of Torah observance. The hero of our hypothetical case might easily be lulled into a false sense of righteousness, blinded by the belief that as long as he is involved in the performance of a mitzvah, a state of perfection is assured. He might naturally feel that he need not think twice, for he is surely fulfilling the will of God. From the Talmudic discussion, we learn that even the performance of the mitzvah is not sufficient. The process of achieving moral and spiritual perfection is two-sided: We must actively nurture our good inclination while at the same time identify and overcome our evil inclination. Only a society that lives by both of these standards can recreate the rapture, and the unity, achieved at Sinai.(8) Perhaps this is meant by the famous statement found in the Pesach Haggada:

If we had come close before Mount Sinai and not received the Torah it would have sufficed. (Pesach Hagaddah)

When we arrived at Mount Sinai we were unified:

Israel encamped there - as one man with one heart; but all the other encampments were with grudges and divisiveness. (Rashi Shmot 19:2)

At Mount Sinai each and every person saw and felt the holiness in all the others. Had we been able to retain that feeling, to maintain that unity without receiving the Torah, it would certainly have been "sufficient". Unfortunately, we were not capable of creating a just society or achieving spiritual perfection on our own; God gave us Torah and mitzvot as tools to pursue these goals, to bring about personal perfection and national unity. Having received the Torah, we must focus on the goal: through the performance of mitzvot and observance of the commandments, we can rekindle the spiritual and interpersonal experience of holiness and unity of Sinai.



1. Shmot 24:7.

2. According to the understanding of Rambam, Laws of Murder and Preservation of Life Chapter 13, laws 13,14; Tosafot Pesachim 113b, She'era bo davar erva, and perhaps the Mechaber, Shulchan Oruch Hoshen Mishpat, section 272.

3. This is the approach taken by the Ramban, Bava Metziah 32b and the Rema, Shulchan Oruch Hoshen Mishpat, section 272.

4. See Akaidat Yitzchak Shaar 98 note 29.

5. Tosafot in Pesachim 113b She'era bo davar erva, suggest that if you hate him, he will come to hate you and this will lead to "real hatred". It is unclear what Tosafot mean by "real hatred". From a passage in the Tanya, chapter 32, it seems that the hatred which is permitted is to hate the evil within the person, but not the person himself. Therefore the Baal Hatanya teaches that while you may hate the evil, you are still obligated to love the person, and this is not a contradiction. If you display hatred and then in turn they display hatred, the possibility of escalation of hatred exists, and that is what the Talmud is trying to avoid. "What about the statement in the Talmud that if you see your colleague sinning you must hate him, and also tell his teacher so that he should hate him as well? That refers to someone who is your peer, who learns Torah and does all the mitzvot. He did something that he should have realized is wrong and you rebuked him for it, as the Torah instructs you, ...This love also applies to those who are close to you-the ones that you have rebuked and yet have not repented of their sins. Yes, it is a mitzvah to hate them, but it is also a mitzvah to love them - and both in all earnestness: Hatred due to the evil within them and love due to that aspect of good that is buried within them - meaning the spark of Godliness within them that vitalizes their Godly soul."

6. The Pardes Yosef Vayikra 25:36 cites the Siftei Zadik, who states that the Talmud's ruling is based on the conclusion that your own spiritual growth takes precedence over the needs of your friend (or, presumably, the animal).

7. See the Rambam, Laws of Temura Chapter 4:13.

8. See Shem Mishmuel Parshat Shmini 5671.

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