SALT - Motzaei Shabbat, February 3, 2018

  • Rav David Silverberg
Dedicated in memory of Sondra Schwartz (שבע שיינדל בת דוד) z"l
by her son Dr. Avi and Sara Schwartz
            The Torah in Parashat Mishpatim addresses the case of one who sees his enemy’s animal buckling under a load that was placed upon it which it is incapable of bearing.  Although one might instinctively prefer to ignore the animal’s plight, as it belongs to somebody whom he dislikes, the Torah commands, “azov ta’azov imo” (23:5) – that he must lend his enemy assistance. 
            There is some discussion among the commentators regarding the Torah’s formulation of this comment.  The familiar root a.z.v. means “leave” or “abandon,” whereas here, as Rashi, the Rashbam and others note, it appears to be used to mean “assist,” as in the root a.z.r.  A different explanation of this verse appears in Targum Onkelos, who translates it to mean that one must abandon the feelings of hostility that he harbors towards the animal’s owner.  According to Onkelos, then, the phrase “azov ta’azov” indeed means “abandon,” and not “assist,” and refers to the abandonment of feelings of animosity.
            Returning to the common understanding, that “azov ta’azov” means “assist,” why would the word that normally refers to abandonment also be used to refer to lending assistance?  Is this not the precise opposite of abandonment?
            A meaningful answer to this question is offered by Rav Tzvi Weimgarten, in his Zikhron Binyamin Zev.  He writes that the use of the root a.z.v. to mean “assist” serves to allude to the fact that sometimes, we are more helpful by “leaving” than we are by getting involved.  For example, some people in times of difficulty or distress prefer being alone than being in the company of even sincere, well-meaning peers.  Additionally, offering assistance can sometimes lead to shame and humiliation, causing greater harm than is caused by the problem one seeks to solve.  (Rav Weingarten cites as an example the story told in Masekhet Chagiga (5a) of somebody who gave charity to a needy individual in the market, in public view.  The donor was reprimanded for embarrassing the recipient, and was told that he would have done more for the pauper by giving nothing than by giving him a donation in public, causing him shame.)  And, very often, our strong, sincere desire to offer assistance leads us to get involved in ways which are not actually helpful.  The fact that we want to help somebody in need does not always mean that we can.  On some occasions, then, the greatest help we can give is by standing to the side and not getting involved.
            It is perhaps significant that this usage of the verb a.z.v. appears specifically in the context of the Torah’s command to lend assistance to somebody whom one dislikes.  In such a situation, one’s instinctive reaction might be to assume that he is not really in a position to help anyway, such that he might as well abandon the person in need.  In this particular scenario, the message of “a.z.v.” – that sometimes one helps more by leaving the person in need – can tempt a person to excuse himself from lending assistance which he is fully capable of providing.  The Torah here indicates that although there are, indeed, situations in which “abandonment” is preferable to involvement, when this is not the case, one must make a proactive effort to help even those whom he does not necessarily like.  The phrase “azov ta’azov” in this verse thus points to the need for honesty and common sense in deciding when to lend assistance and when to stay to the side; when we should step forward to help others even when we feel uncomfortable doing so, and when the person in need is better served by our inaction.