The juxtaposition of this reading portion, dealing primarily with civil and tort law with the Ten Commandments and the laws of the Altar provide a startling insight into Judaism. To God, there is no realm of “religion” in the colloquial sense of the word. Most people think of the religion as a matter of ritual and spirituality. Western man differentiates between Church and State. The Torah knows no such distinction. To the contrary, all areas of life are intertwined and holiness derives from rabbinical correct business dealings no less that from piety in matters of ritual. The sages teach that one who wishes to be a devoutly pious person, should be scrupulous in matters of civil and tort law, for in Judaism the concept of the “temple” is in the courtroom as well as in the synagogue. This is significance of the juxtaposition of these chapters.
From this proximity, the Sages derive that the seat of the Sanhedrin, the seventy-one member court that is the supreme authority on religious matters, should be on the Temple Mount, near the Temple itself for both the Temple and the Sanhedrin are expressions of holiness and worship of God. A judge who rules correctly is considered a partner in creation, and one who rules corruptly is a destroyer of God’s world. It is quite natural, therefore, that immediately after carrying us through the recognition of God’s power, through the miracles of the Splitting of the Sea, and the revelation at Sinai, the Torah commences with laws that seem almost mundane in character. They are not in the least mundane. They are as much expressions of God’s greatness as the First Commandment, which proclaims God’s existence and sovereignty. This point is graphically illustrated by the first group of laws that this reading portion, that of Jewish bondservants. Even the most degraded men and women are created in the image of god, and their treatment is as carefully regulated by the Torah as the procedure of the Temple service on Yom Kippur (Day of attonment).
The Sages comment that the Civil law is an extension of the Tenth Commandment, which forbids covetousness. In order to know what he may not covet, one must know the rights and property of others. Elaboration on this concept, the Sages comment that the above commandment states that one may not covet anything that belongs to his fellow; so the Torah now goes on to begin defining what it is that belongs to others.
The Talmud teaches that one who wishes to become a religiously devout person should be careful regarding the laws of damages. This forcefully refutes the common misconception that “religion” is confined to ritual and temple. One who is negligent with someone else’s property is as irreligious as someone who is negligent in Sabbath or kosher observance. The above dictum of the Sages shows that the Torah embraces all areas of life and that holiness is indivisible. Indeed, justice in monetary affairs is a prerequisite to Israel’s national security; as the prophet Isaiah says, after warning the impending catastrophe and exile, Zion will be redeemed through justice, and its capt0ives through righteousness.
In his “Dvar”, Tabbi Shlomo Bressler comments that the Torah goes through all the rules that govern our everyday lives. So detailed are these rules, that it even talks about seeing your ENEMY””S donkey carrying a heavy load, and how we must help (23:5). As the sages explain, we have to put away our hatred for the person, and help his donkey with its load. As Rabbi Liebowitz explains (in Majesty of Man) we have to learn to suspend our hatred toward the man, even though that hatred is totally justified (or else it would be wrong to hate, and the Torah wouldn””t bring it up). How can the Torah expect us to stop hating someone just long enough to help their donkey, and then go back to hating them again? And if the point is to help your enemy, why does the Torah find a case specifically involving the person’s donkey, and not a case involving the ”evil” person himself?
One way to explain it is that it’s human nature that the more we feel and care about something or someone, the better we take care of it/them. However, too often we get caught up caring too much about our OWN feelings. This commandment is the ultimate exercise in working on this tendency. We may have a legitimate reason for feeling a certain way, but if it prevents us from doing what’s right, we must suspend our feelings and do the right thing. This exercise in suspending our personal feelings is why the Torah uses a case of a ”hated” man. The donkey is used to make us realize that our actions and feelings toward others affect more then just them and us, but even those AROUND us, and can even affect our animals. Although we don’t see it all the time, we affect our surroundings more then we know, which is something we need to be constantly aware of.
The lesson from the Torah is that doing what’s right sometimes means doing it for someone that’s wrong, because you never know whom you’ll change in the process.
Dr. Ron Wexler
Ten Commandments Commission