He was strong of bone, thick of hide and obstinate of mind, and as all
donkeys before him from the dawn of donkey history, he was born into the service of a human master.
His master placed heavy loads on his back -- goods and produce to take to the marketplace. But the donkey just stood there, munching grass.
A man walked by and said to the donkey's master: "What a stubborn beast! Beat him with your whip." But the donkey just dug his heels deeper into the earth and refused to budge.
Another man walked by and said to the donkey's master: "Your beast needs to be taught his purpose. His burden is too light -- so he thinks that all that's required of him is to munch his grass." So they brought more pots and pans and cabbages and books to increase the donkey's load. The load grew and grew until the donkey collapsed.
A third man arrived and said: "Who needs that silly animal, anyway? You're much better off without him. All that stuff on his back is quite useless, too, for men of the spirit. Forsake your beast and its load and follow me, and I'll show you the gateway to heaven."
Still the donkey's owner hesitated. He liked his donkey. He also liked his pots and his pans, his cabbages and his books. Perhaps he could carry them himself? But he knew he couldn't do it on his own.
A fourth teacher arrived on the scene. "Don't beat your beast," he said to the donkey's master. "Don't overload him and don't abandon him. Help him."
"Help him?" asked the man.
"Help him carry his load. Show him that your burden is a shared burden -- that it's not just him doing the shlepping and you reaping the profits, but a joint venture in which you both toil and both benefit. When you regard him as a partner rather than a slave, your beast will be transformed. His obstinacy will become endurance, his strength will turn from a resisting force into a carrying force."
The man put his shoulder to his donkey's burden. The beast rose from the ground and tensed its brawn; the man, too, heaved and strained. Together they transported their merchandise to the market.
Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov (1698-1760) lived in a time of conflict between body and soul.
It was an age of boors and ascetics. The "boors" were actually intelligent and sensitive folk, but largely uneducated. Poverty and persecution conspired to cut their schooling short and consign them to the workroom or field from dawn to dark. They were a dejected lot, for it was commonly accepted that a life preoccupied with material concerns was not a life worth living.
The ascetics were the community elite: men who spent their days and nights studying the Talmud and poring over kabbalistic texts. They fasted frequently, shunned bodily pleasures and forswore all involvement in worldly matters, for it was commonly perceived that the body was the enemy of the soul.
The soul would gladly have rid itself of the unsavory animal with which it had been forcefully joined. But it had a problem. To serve G‑d properly, the soul needed to perform "mitzvot" -- divine commandments. And it needed the body to perform the mitzvot. It needed a body to bind tefillin on its arm and head; it needed a body to eat matzah on Passover; it even needed a body to study and pray. The body, however, was a coarse and obstinate beast, and preferred munching cake and pickles to carrying the soul's load.
So body and soul remained trapped in a marriage of mutual dependence,
animosity and disdain. The ascetics tried starving and beating their body into submission, and increasing its load in the hope that it would finally get the message. The simple folk just plodded along. The soul's load was too much for a body to bear on its own, and many a body collapsed at the roadside.
Then came the Baal Shem Tov and said: "Don't beat your animal. Don't overload him and don't abandon him. Help him."
"Help him?" asked the dejected masses.
"Help the beast?" asked the holy ascetics.
"Help the beast," taught the chassidic master. "The problem is that the body is carrying the soul's load. But G‑d's mitzvot are for the body as well as the soul; it is the body's merchandise as much as it is the soul's! The mitzvot refine the body, uplift it, give meaning to its existence. A mitvah is a bilateral deed, performed by the person -- by a soul and body joined together and acting in unison. The soul climbs its spiritual heights -- and connects with G‑d; the body bores down to the essence of its being -- and connects with G‑d.
"When the soul regards the body as an ally rather than an enemy; when the soul nourishes and inspires the body rather than beats on it; when the body senses that the mitzvot are its own load and not just the soul's -- its animal strength will cease to resist the load and will harness its power to carry it."
The Baal Shem Tov would cite the following passage from the Torah:
When you see the donkey of your enemy collapsing under its load, and are inclined to desist from helping him, you shall surely help along with him (Exodus 23:5).
This passage is from the Torah reading of Mishpatim, which set down many of the laws that govern the proper civil and charitable behavior between individuals. The basic meaning of the verse pertains to a person who sees an overloaded donkey collapsing by the roadside and thinks of ignoring the scene since he never liked the donkey's owner anyway. To him the Torah says: though it is the donkey of you enemy, you must help him. But like everything in Torah, there is a deeper meaning as well -- a meaning pertaining to our inner life.
And this is how the Baal Shem Tov interpreted the verse:
"When you see the donkey..." -- When you look at your body [the Hebrew word for donkey, chamor, also means "clay" (chaimor) and "materiality" (chomer)] and you perceive it as,
"your enemy" -- since your soul longs for G‑dliness and
spirituality, and you body hinders and obstructs its strivings,
"collapsing under its load" -- the Torah and the mitzvot, which, in truth are its -- the body's own -- load as well, given to it by G‑d to refine and elevate it; but the body does not recognize this, and balks at the burden. When you see all this, it may occur to you,
"to desist from helping him" -- you may think to choose the path of mortification of the flesh to break down the body's crass materiality. However, not in this approach will the light of Torah reside. Rather,
"you shall surely help along with him" -- nourish the body, inspire it, refine it and elevate it, so that body and soul complement, fulfill and aid each other to carry their merchandise to the marketplace.