For the week ending 17 January 2004 / 23 Tevet 5764

A Friend in Need

by Rabbi Yirmiyahu Ullman -
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From: Jon in Atlanta

Dear Rabbi,

Sometimes when people ask me for help with something, Id rather not do it and I try to avoid them. Sometimes I feel its justified if I really have no time, or if Im not feeling well. But other times I just dont want to help because Im lazy, but Ill say I dont have time. Is it against the Torah to not help when I really can?

Dear Jon,

Your feelings are natural, and we all think this way from time to time. However, like all other undesirable inclinations within us, we must overcome this "laziness" to help others. In these instances, it often helps to remember that we are instructed to "walk in the ways of G-d" just as He helps others (including us), so must we. Imagine if one day G-d just didnt feel like helping the world along chaos, disaster. But in truth He helps us tirelessly, giving us health, sustenance, family, and a myriad of other blessings. The least we can do is to help others with what we have, which is anyway a gift from G-d.

The Torah extends this idea to helping even those who we dont get along with. "If you see the mule of someone you hate lying under its burden, and you would rather not help him, you must surely help to unload it" (Exodus 23:5). The commentaries explain that this is not only an issue being humane to animals; it is an explicit commandment to help those in need, even if we dont like them. Overcoming our inertia to aid in such a case is not only a mitzvah; it goes a long way to making peace.

Your question reminds of a touching story I heard about helping others. Once a woman visiting Israel from America was waiting in line in a supermarket. In a rush, and upset that there was no express lane, the woman asked to skip ahead in line, but the cashier refused. Frustrated, the woman decided to leave. Halfway down the block she heard a tremendous explosion, a bomb went off in the entrance of the supermarket. Several days later, the woman returned to the store to thank the cashier for possibly saving her life, only to hear that the she had been hospitalized.

At the hospital, the woman thanked the cashier and insisted that if she ever visit New York, she should look her up. The cashier, who had no intention of leaving Israel, graciously took the womans number. Months later, the cashier needed serious surgery, and her doctors recommended she go to New York. When she arrived, she called to tell the woman about her surgery, but was surprised by her terse response, "Im very busy now and cant talk, Ill get back to you". What a shock when on the day of surgery, the woman showed up at the hospital, "Ive taken three days off from work to help you". As a result of helping the cashier, she was in the hospital on September 11, and not at work in the Twin Towers. This adds new meaning to the adage, "G-d helps those who help (others) themselves".


  • Sefer HaChinuch, mitzvah 90

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