There are no two ways about it, Judaism is “law-heavy” and you are never more conscious of this than when you read Parshat Mishpatim. Now, people have an appreciation of the need for law, but still, for many just thinking about law conjures up feelings of constriction of freedom. Apparently, these feelings are not new. People have been rebelling against the “oppressiveness” of law since time immemorial and those charged with defending the law have often had to justify the need for laws before a cynical audience. It should be no surprise then, that the compiler of Midrash Tanhuma (7th-8th century Eretz Yisrael) chose to showcase an unusual law from the middle of the parashah in the very first midrash of the chapter perhaps in an effort to sure up support for the virtues of legislation and the wisdom of the “Divine legislator”.
It is unusual for law to attempt to make an attitudinal change in people, but sometimes attitude intersects with behavior as in the following law: “Should you see your adversary’s donkey sprawling under its load and would hold back from assisting him, you shall surely assist him.” (Exodus 23:5) Targum Onkelos, one of the early Aramaic translations to the Torah captures the inner struggle involved in observing this commandment: “Surely leave that which is in your heart regarding him (the one you hate) and help him unload.” Targum Yonatan is even more explicit: “Surely leave the hatred that is in your heart at that moment…” It is not hard to see how difficult it might be to fulfill such a commandment. It requires a radical human transformation.
The following story from the opening midrash of the Tanhuma’s chapter on Parshat Mishpatim makes light of the radical nature of this act and the potential results: “Said Rabbi Alexandri: There were two donkey drivers, sworn enemies, who were leading their animals down the road. One of the two men’s donkeys collapsed under its burden. The other saw what had happened and said to himself, ‘Isn’t it written in the Torah: Should you see your adversary’s donkey sprawling under its load and would hold back from assisting him, you shall surely assist him?’ So, what did he do? He turned back, reloaded the donkey and accompanied his fellow. [While working], he began to talk with the other donkey driver. He helped a little here. He lifted a little there. He unloaded some here [and loaded some there] until the two of them had reloaded the donkey together. Now, there was peace between the two men. The other man said [to himself]: ‘I would not have thought that he hated me. See how kind he was to me when he saw me and my donkey in trouble.’ Afterwards, they entered an inn, ate and drank together and became friends.” (adapted from Tanhuma Mishpatim 1)
Aside from the colorful nature of this commandment, which might whet the curiosity of those who read it and draw them to further explore the parasha’s midrashim, it also serves as a tremendous example of the depth of the divine commandments. Here we have an example of a law which seeks both to transform how people interact with each other and to shape the inner life of those involved. The idea that law can shape and improve both a person’s inner world and the outside environment is profound and is directed precisely at the Torah’s ultimate purpose, bringing God into all spheres of existence. Who would have thought that unloading a donkey could do all of that?