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Donkeying Around: Bava Kama Daf 49

And it came to pass that Hashem tested Avraham, and said, “Take your son, your unique one Yitzchak, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah. Offer him there as a burnt offering.”

Avraham arose early in the morning, and saddled his donkey, and took two of his young men with him, along with his son Yitzchak, and chopped wood for the burnt offering. He got up and went to the place where Hashem had instructed. On the third day Avraham raised his eyes and saw the place from afar. He said to his lads, “Stay here with the donkey; and I and the boy will continue further and prostrate ourselves and then return to you.”

They arrived at the commanded site and Avraham built an altar and bound Yitzchak upon it. Avraham stretched out his hand and took the knife to slay his son. But an angel of Hashem called to him out of heaven, and said, “Lay not your hand upon the boy, neither do anything to him.” Avraham raised his eyes and beheld a ram caught in the thicket by its horns. He took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering in place of his son. He subsequently received a heavenly blessing, after which he returned to the lads. And they arose and went together to Beersheva.

***

The Torah states that a person is liable to pay damages if he struck a pregnant woman and she miscarried. Our mishnah teaches that the Torah’s ruling comes to exclude the circumstances of an animal that attacked a woman causing a miscarriage. In that case, its owners would not be liable to pay. Today’s daf clarifies that the exclusion does not apply to a pregnant Canaanite maidservant who miscarried due to an animal attack, whereby the owners would be liable to pay damages. Why?

אָמַר רַב פָּפָּא שׁוֹר שֶׁנָּגַח אֶת הַשִּׁפְחָה וְיָצְאוּ יְלָדֶיהָ מְשַׁלֵּם דְּמֵי וְלָדוֹת מַאי טַעְמָא חֲמָרְתָּא מְעַבַּרְתָּא בְּעָלְמָא הוּא דְּאַזֵּיק דְּאָמַר קְרָא שְׁבוּ לָכֶם פֹּה עִם הַחֲמוֹר עַם הַדּוֹמֶה לַחֲמוֹר

Rav Pappa says: If an ox gored a maidservant, and she miscarried, the owner must pay restitution for the offspring. What is the reason? The ox injured a mere pregnant donkey. As the verse states: “Stay here with [עִם] the donkey,” indicating that he was part of a people [עַם] likened to a donkey.

***

Anytime an animal damages property, its owners must make restitution. Despite the Torah’s admonition to treat all human beings with dignity and respect, a Canaanite servant is considered the property of the holder. As future servants, the unborn offspring is included as part of that property consideration and any damage to that holding is subject to claims for restitution.

Now, at first blush, the Gemara’s comparison of a servant to a donkey seems crude. However, every element of creation typifies certain characteristics that serve as models for our Divine service. So, when you hear “donkey,” don’t think of it simplistically. You need to appreciate the meaning and symbolism of the concept of חֲמוֹר (donkey) in the Torah.

Let’s start with the special mitzvah we have of redeeming the donkey. Following the salvation of the firstborn Israelites from the final plague in Egypt, God instructed all firstborns be dedicated to Him, from our children to our kosher animals. The donkey is the only non-kosher animal included in this injunction, as the Torah declares:

Every firstborn (kosher) animal you own, the males shall belong to God. (As well) redeem each firstborn donkey with a sheep. If it is not redeemed, you must break its neck. Redeem every first-born male among your sons. When your child asks you tomorrow saying, ‘What is this?’ You should say to him, ‘With a strong hand Hashem brought us out of Egypt from the house of slavery. When Pharaoh stubbornly refused to send us out, Hashem killed every first-born in the land of Egypt, from the firstborn of man to the first-born of beast. I am therefore sacrificing to Hashem all that is first to open the womb which are male, and the first-born of my sons I redeem.’

Why were donkeys granted this special merit? Our Sages attribute it to their mitzvah of assisting our people as we left Egypt. Every individual was accompanied by ninety donkeys laden with gold and silver! Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Vitebsk, however, offers a deeper meaning for the redemption of the donkeys. The Torah states that the Israelites were made to work with “חומר ,ובלבנים” mortar and bricks. The root of the Hebrew words for “donkey” and “mortar” is the same, and so the mitzvah of redeeming the donkey elevates the mortar we sullied ourselves with in Egypt.

He continues to explain that anytime we engage with this physical world, we are sullied by חומריות—mortality/materialism, becoming an obstacle to our love for Heaven. Such desires must be redeemed and replaced with a sheep, representing pure love for God. On the rare occasion that we are unable to redirect our passions away from materialism towards spiritual pursuits, we must “break its neck,” by turning to ascetism and avoiding pleasure.

Thus, when the Gemara refers to these Canaanite servants as חמור, we shouldn’t allow popular pejorative associations to spring to mind. We’re not calling them stubborn or foolish. It’s a reference to their earthliness. A human being is the sole creature on the planet with the potential for Godliness. Our mission is to transform our חומריות (physicality) into רוחניות (spirituality). A servant who must act upon his master’s every whim has little capacity to dedicate his life to a higher purpose.

Freedom is your ability to be Divine. When you go to work, you are bound by the constraints of life on Earth. Every moment beyond the proverbial 9-5 is an opportunity to shed yourself of physicality and become a spiritual being. While human beings may all look the same, we exist on a spectrum of חומריות (physicality) to רוחניות (spirituality). The more of your life that is dedicated to spiritual pursuits and living by your faith, the more Divine you become.

Don’t waste your life donkeying around. You have incredible potential to fulfill. Ultimately, Avraham “returned to the lads. And they arose and went together to Beersheva,” indicating that no human being is irredeemable. Following the momentous Akeidah, Avraham had the power to elevate even Yishmael the warrior and Eliezer the Canaanite servant. May you move further and further along the רוחניות spectrum each and every day!


Rabbi Dr. Daniel Friedman is the author of The Transformative Daf book series. He battles Christian antisemitism and teaches International Relations at Landers.

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