"If you were to see the donkey of someone you hate crouching under its load, would you refrain from helping it?! Rather, you must help him [unload it]." (Ex 23:5)

The Baal Shem Tov interpreted this verse as follows:

If you were to see: If you properly examine and look into the donkey: your physical body [since "donkey" (in Hebrew, "chamor") can also be read "matter" (in Hebrew, "chomer")] of someone you hate: you will see that it is your enemy crouching under its load: You will also see that it is uncomfortably shifting and complaining beneath the load of Torah and mitzvot that G‑d has placed upon it.
Would you refrain from helping it?! Do you imagine that you should refrain from helping your body acclimate itself to its task? Do you intend to break its opposition by weakening it through fasts and punishments? No! This is not the way of the Torah, rather you must help him: you must strengthen the body both physically and spiritually, and ensure that it, too, participates in Divine service. Both body and soul are better off if they are utilized in spiritual harmony…

The body views the Torah and its mitzvot as a burden. Despite the fact that they are clearly its load, i.e. intended for the body's own spiritual and physical benefit, it nevertheless rebels. Since for most of us the body's voice is louder than that of the soul's, we find ourselves viewing the Torah as an oppressive burden. All this means, however, is that we have not yet integrated the Torah and its lifestyle into the our lives. Only when a person realizes that the Torah and mitzvot that he must fulfill are truly the very source of life itself can he hope to truly be successful and comfortable with his task.

The Baal Shem Tov was not the first to teach that the Torah stresses the importance of taking care of one's health (see Maimonides, Mishna Torah, Deiot 4:1.) However, over the years, people had come to believe that the body retains its importance only as long as the person never sins with it. If a person had sins, people felt, it is proper to "break" the body by subjecting it to voluntary suffering, as a form of penance. The Baal Shem Tov's innovation was that even if the body has sinned, both body and soul are better off if they are utilized in spiritual harmony for holy purposes, rather than being paired against one another.

[Based on Hayom Yom, p.23; Hitva'aduyot 5710, pp. 111-112; and Likutei Sichot, vol. 2, pp.530-32]

Copyright 2001 Chabad of California / http://www.LAchumash.org