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The Jewish Definition of Justice
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Jewish law says, be the person who overcomes hatred.

The Jewish Definition of Justice

Based on Parasha U’Pishra by Rabbi Moshe Grylak

By: Braha Bender

 

Imagine driving home from work one day and seeing a fellow you know stuck at the side of the road. His car has broken down. Obviously he could use a hand.

You’re not in a rush; you have time. But the fact is that you don’t like him. It doesn’t matter where you know him from. It could be that you know him from work, shul, or your local gym. The man gets on your nerves.

Do you smile, wave, and keep on driving? Do you crouch down in your seat and step on the gas, hoping that he won’t recognize you speeding by? Or do you stop, get out of your car, and offer to help the guy out?

Parashas Mishpatim presents this issue in biblical vernacular. “If you see the donkey of someone you hate crouching under its burden, would you refrain from helping him? – you shall help repeatedly with him.” (Exodus 23:5)

Another verse repeats a similar case: “You shall not see the donkey of your brother or his ox falling on the road and hide yourself from them; you shall surely stand them up, with him.” (Deuteronomy 22:4)

These verses describe slightly different situations, say our sages. The first depicts the commandment to unload the burden of a donkey splayed on the road from exhaustion. The second obliges us to help return cargo to the back of a donkey peacefully standing on his feet and ready to continue his journey.

What if you encounter both of these situations at once? The answer to this question marks the difference between common law and Judaism’s definition of justice.

The sages determine that usually unloading the exhausted animal’s burden takes priority over preparing the other donkey for travel. This is because, besides helping your acquaintance at the side of the road, in the first case you are also helping the poor, exhausted donkey. Preventing the suffering of animals is an additional Torah commandment that you get to fulfil.

But hold on! This law is apt to change! There are times when Jewish law commands that you do the exact opposite – ignore the exhausted donkey while you help load up the healthy animal first. When are you supposed to do it that way? When the owner of the animal waiting to be reloaded is someone you really hate.

When you dislike the person who needs your help, Jewish law says to let the other donkey wait. First help the guy you hate. Why does helping the person you hate come before helping the exhausted donkey? The Talmud explains, “Conquering his yetzer takes priority.” (Baba Metziah, 32)

Herein lies the difference in Jewish law. Judaism asserts that the inherent goodness of every human being is challenged by a drive towards destructive behaviour. This drive is called the yetzer hara . Overcoming this destructive force is what gives every human being an opportunity to put their inherent goodness into action and actualize their potential. The yetzer is like a built-in spiritual Stair Master, but we have to be aware that it’s there inside us or else we will go down fast. It never turns off, because, spiritually, we are always supposed to be turned on.

This premise is what marks the difference in the Jewish definition of justice. Common decency would certainly dictate stopping to help a person in need, and to relieve a suffering animal. Jewish law agrees, but also engages an additional sensitivity. Jewish law moulds itself to the challenges of the yetzer inside all of us, demanding that we not only behave justly, but that we ourselves become just.

If you were to help the tired animal first, you would make that guy you dislike wait a few more minutes, and to the base and ugly feelings driving you to hate him, that small discourtesy would feel very good. Jewish law says, don’t be that person. Be the person who overcomes hatred, the person who will not allow himself to indulge hatred and other such destructive emotions even in the smallest measure. Help the person you hate first, because ultimately, conquering your yetzer  is what will forward the purposes of justice most in the long run.

Imagine driving home from work one day and seeing a fellow you know stuck at the side of the road. His car has broken down. Obviously he could use a hand.

You’re not in a rush; you have time. But the fact is that you don’t like him.

You know your mission. Go.


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