In this week’s reading, the Torah commands us to help each other, and to avoid pain even to animals: “You shall not see the donkey of your brother or his ox falling on the path, yet lift your eyes from them; you shall surely right it with him.” [22: 4] It’s not just a Mitzvah to help; the Torah prohibits us from not helping.
Like everything else in life, however, we must balance this Commandment with other considerations. For example, if a person is leading his donkey along a path through a cemetery, and the observer is a Kohein, who is prohibited from entering a cemetery — the Kohein may not enter. In that case, he must hold himself back from helping.
But the Talmud [Bava Metzia 32a] gives us another example which is perhaps more surprising. If the owner abandons the animal and goes and sits down under a tree, and says “go do your Mitzvah” — then you have no obligation. The verse says you have to “right it with him,” not that you have to do his work for him.
What about the animal? In this situation, shouldn’t we help the poor creature? It’s obviously not the animal’s fault that its owner is heartless and wants to take advantage of another’s kindness.
The Torah understands well the law of unintended consequences. It’s not true that “good guys finish last.” On the contrary, it’s only our choice to do the right thing that enables us to feel true satisfaction for a “job well done.” Clearly, the person who abandons his own animal and tells someone else to “go do a Mitzvah” has not learned this. He thinks that other people exist to do his bidding; he is finding ways to take advantage of their kindness and their desire to do G-d’s will.
In this case, enabling the other person to take advantage would be detrimental — not so much to the person who helps and does the work, but to the person who is learning to exploit the generosity of others. Making sure that this person does not learn to take advantage of others is so important that it overwhelms the obligation to help the animal. Helping another person to be productive is much better than simply giving him a handout, even of “free labor.”
The story is told of someone entering the subway, who was approached by a man he understood to be a beggar. He gave the man a quarter and rushed to meet his train — but the other man ran to catch up with him, and give him one of the pencils he was selling. “Oh, I’m sorry,” said the hurried traveler, “I didn’t realize you were a merchant.”
Months later, the man selling pencils saw the same traveler, and brought him into his store. He told him to take anything he wants, because the whole store existed thanks to him. “You were the first person to make me think of myself as a merchant!”
People think about the immediate situation — like the poor donkey struggling to get up — and not about the future consequences. Sometimes what is best for a person isn’t what will help him right now, but what will lead to a better future. And that is where we should “lend a hand.”