The Torah mandates two seemingly parallel commandments to help one who is having trouble with his pack animal. Of course both commandments tell us to show kindness to our fellow man, but the two mandates have different and complementary messages regarding our relation to animals.
In Shemot, we are told to help him unload: “If you see the ass of your enemy straining under his load, and you refrain from unloading it, go and unload with him” (Shemot 23:5).
This verse is one of the main sources for the prohibition of causing unnecessary suffering to animals, tza’ar baalei chayim (Bava Metzia 32b). While man was given dominion over the animals (Bereshit 1:26), this dominion is not one of tyranny, and it has limits. Any time we use animals for our benefit, we have to be sensitive to their feelings and avoid any unnecessary pain.
In our parsha, we are told to help him load his beast: “Don’t see the ass of your brother, or his ox, falling in the way, and you ignore them; surely load with him” (Devarim 22:4). The peculiar wording “and you ignore them” teaches us that sometimes we may ignore them; a person who would find it beneath his dignity to load even his own beast is not required to help load someone else’s. And this mitzva, like the one in Shemot, applies even to an enemy; indeed, the gemara tells us that overcoming our enmity is so important that we should help an enemy load his beast before we help a friend unload one, even though the unloading has the additional advantage of allaying an animal’s suffering (Bava Metzia 32b).
THE LADDER OF SPIRIT
These laws together give an important insight to the particular level of beasts in creation. Animals occupy an intermediate level above plants andinanimate material, but below human beings. While beasts are not moral beings with free will at the level of human beings, they do have feelings and desires, and we do have a certain empathy with them. Furthermore, animals are susceptible to a kind of moral improvement or the opposite.
The challenge for us is to acknowledge the special value of our animal helpers, without allowing this acknowledgement to obscure the immense spiritual distance between man and beast.
At the time of creation of man, G-d’s plan emphasized the recognition of the special level of animals. Man was not even allowed to kill animals for food (Bereshit 1:29). However,this emphasis backfired. Hevel recognized that despite animals’ high level, they are still subordinate to man, and brought sacrifices from his flock; but Cain esteemed animals too much, and instead brought sacrifices from his produce (Bereshit 4:3-4). In the end, this obscured the difference between man and beast, and Cain was led to the first act of murder (Bereshit 4:8, based on the Tanchuma on this passage).
Mankind continued in its decline until HaShem was compelled to start over with Noach and his offspring. Since “the best is the enemy of the good”, mankind was permitted to eat meat (Bereshit 9:3), so that the special sanctity of mankind, created in G-d’s image, would be sufficiently appreciated.
But in the time of the redemption we will gain a clear understanding of G-d’s plan, and a correct evaluation of the importance of each creature; then even the animals themselves will not harm each other: “And the wolf will dwell with the lamb, and the leopard lie down with the kid; the calf, the lion, and the fatling will be together, and a little child will lead them” (Yishayahu 11:6).
These subtleties are expressed in the laws of helping with pack animals. On the one hand, we acknowledge our empathy with the beasts by forbidding causing them unnecessary suffering; on the other hand, causing them pain is not forbidden if it is essential for our purposes. Human beings are not forbidden to eat meat, to wear leather or fur, or to perform vital experiments on animals.
The commandment of unloading an animal, where the enemy and the animal are likewise being helped, reminds us of our kinship with the animals; we have to help man and beast alike. But the commandment of loading, where special notice is given to man’s unique dignity, and where overcoming our enmity is a greater value than preventing an animal’s suffering, reminds us that our spiritual level is still immeasurably higher than that of the beasts.