We learn in the Torah portion of Mishpatim :1 “When you see the donkey of your enemy lying under its load, you will [be tempted] to refrain from helping him, [but] you must come to his aid.”

In commenting on this verse, the Mechilta notes2 instances when one is not obliged to render assistance: when the donkey belongs to a gentile and the load belongs to a Jew, or when the animal is in a cemetery and the person who would render assistance is a kohen, for the kohen may not ritually defile himself by entering a cemetery.

Rashi, in his commentary on the Torah3 , explains this verse, first according to its simple meaning and then according to its Midrashic interpretation. The simple meaning, says Rashi , is that the verse expresses an understanding that a person might want to refrain from helping his enemy, but goes on to say “you must come to his aid.”

Now, we observe that Rashi, in discussing the Midrashic exceptions, omits the instance mentioned in the Mechilta of the animal being in a cemetery, and instead mentions that when the individual who would offer assistance is old and the conduct would be entirely inappropriate, he is not obliged to help.

Now, while the instance of the older person is indeed mentioned by our Sages,4 they mention it in explaining the verse in Devarim :5 “If you see your brother’s ox or sheep going astray…..”

How could Rashi possibly omit the example quoted by the Mechilta on this verse and substitute an example derived from another verse?

This can be understood by explaining the inner meaning of this Rashi , in context with our own spiritual service:

The Ba’al Shem Tov explains6 that “donkey” — in Hebrew, chamor , from the root chomer (materialism) — refers to a person’s physical body. “You must come to his aid” thus means that one may not rely on fasts and mortifications to break down the body’s crude materialism, but must rather “come to his aid,” by purifying and refining the body.

But there are instances in which one may engage in fasting:7

a) a fast of repentance;

b) a fast to restore one’s spiritual status.

In the first instance, fasting atones for iniquities, while in the latter instance, it either follows repentance, or there was no sin at all; the individual is merely “polishing the soul clean before G‑d.”8

Rashi ’s two examples of “an old person…” and “a gentile’s animal….” are predicated upon the two instances when one does not “come to his [the body’s] aid” through purification and refinement alone, but also through fasts.

When a Jew — Heaven forbid! — sins, his body and animal soul are torn away from holiness and come under the temporary rule of unholiness; they become “a gentile’s animal.” Yet, even the greatest Jewish sinner is filled with mitzvos9 — a “Jewish load” — especially so since, even while a sin is being committed, the Divine soul remains faithful to G‑d.10

In such an instance, where there is “a gentile’s ‘animal’ and a Jewish ‘load,’ ” Rashi informs us that fasting is permitted in order to gain atonement.

The second instance of permissible fasting, however, involves a person who merely desires to “polish his soul” — no actual sin is involved; it’s just that he was so busy with spiritual affairs, he did not take the opportunity to fully refine his materialism, though this shortcoming also dims the shine of one’s soul.

This is alluded to by Rashi as someone “old” — age being a metaphor for the acquisition of wisdom11 — who had found it spiritually “inappropriate” until now to deal with his materialism. For such a person, fasting “polishes” both body and soul.

Rashi therefore does not bring the example of a Kohen and the cemetery, for the Jewish soul — the “load” which is likened to a [daughter of a] Kohen12 — can never descend so low that it is found in a “cemetery,” for both the divine soul and even the Jewish body are ultimately immortal.13

Based on Likkutei Sichos, Vol. XXI, pp. 125-131