This is an interesting verse, so let’s look at it piece by piece.
The verse begins, “If you see a donkey belonging to a person you hate struggling under its load…” Normally, one is not permitted to hate another Jew, as we will see IY”H in Mitzvah #238. So, presumably, this refers to a person that one is permitted to hate, such as an unrepentant, habitual sinner.
The verse continues, “…would you not help him?” in the form of a rhetorical question. There’s simply no way that a God-fearing person could let an innocent animal suffer simply to spite someone else, whom he doesn’t like.
The verse concludes, “Rather, you shall repeatedly help, along with him.” The verb used is the emphatic, “azov ta’azov,” often translated “you shall surely help.” The repetition indicates that we must help him even many times. “With him,” however, indicates that we don’t have to do it FOR him – the owner of the donkey is expected to help. He can’t just assume that we’re going to do all the work – that’s not what the Torah requires of us. (If the owner is unable to assist, rather than unwilling, then we would have to do it ourselves to spare the donkey from suffering.)
The fact that a donkey is mentioned is not exclusive; it’s just an example of an animal commonly used to bear loads.
The purpose of this mitzvah is to cultivate the trait of compassion within us – both towards animals and towards people. We can’t let the donkey suffer and we have to help someone we don’t like. The Torah wants us to take the high road, which makes us better people.In fact, the Talmud tells us that if we have the opportunity to assist either a friend or an enemy in such a case, we must assist the enemy first in order to overcome our natural inclinations (Baba Metzia 32b).
This mitzvah applies to both men and women in all times and places. In the Talmud, it is discussed in tractate Baba Metzia 32a-33a. In the Shulchan Aruch, it is codified in Choshen Mishpat 272. It is #202 of the 248 positive mitzvos in the Rambam’s Sefer HaMitzvos and #70 of the 77 positive mitzvos that can be fulfilled today as listed in the Chofetz Chaim’s Sefer HaMitzvos HaKatzar.