The anecdote is told of a businessman who was traveling by carriage. He decides to take a short break by a nearby stream. Upon arrival, he sees a man sitting peacefully by the water playing with a large, shiny object. As the businessman approaches closer, he sees that the shiny object is in fact a giant diamond. The businessman marvels at the gem and makes the man a massive offer to buy it from him. When the man doesn’t respond, he continues to increase his offer, until eventually he is willing to write a blank check. The man finally responds, “If you want it so badly, please take it as a gift; I insist!”
The businessman is thrilled at his new acquisition, but something about the whole experience stays in his mind. He can barely sleep that night as he thinks about it over and over again. The next day he returns to the spot by the stream. He comes to the man and says, “I was thinking about what transpired here yesterday and have come to a decision. I would like to return the diamond, and instead request that you teach me how you were able to give it away so effortlessly and remain content.”
In this week’s Torah portion, the Torah states, “You shall not see your brother’s donkey or his ox fallen [under its load] on the road, and ignore them. [Rather,] you shall pick up [the load] with him” (Deut. 22:4). The term in Hebrew for “donkey” is “chamor” which can also be read “chomer,” meaning “physicality.” The Baal Shem Tov explained that the Torah is suggesting to us that we must not become too invested in materiality to the point that we overly identify with materiality and forget about spirituality. Should we see our fellow brothers and sisters overburdened by their fixation and obsession with physicality, we must not stand idly by. We must make an effort to remind them that they are not physical beings having the occasional spiritual experience, but rather spiritual beings that are having a temporary physical experience.
Make no mistake, Judaism differs from its Eastern counterparts that shun the physical. On the contrary, we are here in this physical world on a sacred mission to elevate the physical world and transform it into a heaven on earth. That said, we must not lose touch with the truth that we are first and foremost souls. If we get overly involved in the physical, we risk losing touch with our essential self and purpose. The Torah cautions us in this regard. Moreover, it reinforces the important message that we are indeed our brothers’ keepers. May we continually remind ourselves and our fellows of our essential, spiritual selves and as such to always infuse our physical involvement with higher intentionality!
– Rabbi Liad Braude