Your Adversary’s Donkey

Donkey and Cart, Vincent van Gogh, Date: 1881

The ability of spoken or written words to evoke an emotional response is puzzling. When we’re listening to a doctor interpreting results from a recent blood test, it may make sense. However, what is genuinely mystifying is that reading a scary novel, Dracula, for example, can frighten or repulse us, as well, even though we are fully aware that we are reading a work of fiction.

One of the most disturbing emotional responses I ever had to a work of fiction was to an account of cruelty to an animal. It is in Dostoyevsky’s novel Crime and Punishment. One day, Raskolnikov, the book’s protagonist, having grown tired while walking, turned off the road into some bushes, lay down, and fell asleep. He dreamed he was a child about seven years old out for a walk with his father. In his dream, he witnesses a horse being beaten to death by its owner, a peasant named Mikolka.

The horse, an old mare, was yoked to Mikolka’s cart. Mikolka was drunk and called on several other people to get in the wagon with him. He wanted to make the aged mare run, pulling the heavily loaded cart. He told the others to grab whips to flog the horse and show her no mercy. It is his horse, he said; he can do with her as he pleases.

“They clamber into Mikolka’s cart, laughing and joking. Some half a dozen men have climbed aboard and there’s still room for more. They’ve got a woman with them, fat and ruddy-cheeked. She’s wearing red calico, a horned headdress with beads, and little booties; she’s cracking nuts and tittering. Everyone in the crowd is laughing as well, and who could blame them? This clapped-out old mare galloping with a load like that! Two lads in the cart grab a whip each, to help Mikolka. ‘Gee up!’ someone cries and the old nag tugs with all the strength she can muster, but she’s barely capable of walking, never mind galloping; she just takes tiny little steps, groans and slumps under the blows raining down on her from the three whips. The laughter in the cart and the crowd becomes twice as loud, but Mikolka’s furious and his blows land faster and faster, as if he really does believe that the old mare will start galloping.”

Fyodor Dostoevsky. Crime and Punishment. Translation by Oliver Ready.

I’ll spare you the horse’s final manner of death. It’s too much.

Recently, I read a non-fictional account of cruelty to an animal, a newspaper report, about a video of a man pinning down a dog and beating it mercilessly with his hands and a belt. Fortunately, the man’s location was identified, the dog was rescued, and the man was arrested.

Something is deeply troubling about situations in which a person, a place, or a thing that cannot defend itself, is abused. Once, I came home in Philadelphia and found my former spouse crying uncontrollably in the kitchen. I asked her what the problem was. She pointed out the window to the backyard of a house, two doors up from us. Men had cut down a beautiful, healthy, young cherry tree. We had always enjoyed the pink and white of its leaves. She asked the owner why he had the tree cut down. He said he was tired of raking up its leaves. To see the tree’s limbs being sawed off one by one was viewing the dismemberment of something of beauty, something cared about, unable to defend itself. We sought an anodyne and immediately joined an international, non-governmental, environmental protection organization.

“I know all the fowls of the mountains: and the wild beasts of the field are mine.”
(Psalms 50:11)

Like the man in Dostoevsky’s novel, our neighbor felt that he owned the tree; it was his, he could do with it as he liked. The Bible is not mute on this subject of power exercised wantonly over the weak. Here’s only one example of many, this one concerning an animal’s suffering.

“Should you see your adversary’s donkey sprawling under its load and would hold back from assisting him, you shall surely assist him.”

Exodus 23:5. Robert Alter. The Five Books of Moses: A Translation with Commentary.

The passage raises, at least, a couple of interpretive questions. Is the idea that I am to help an enemy in a difficult situation, even though he is my enemy; or, is it that I am obligated to relieve an animal’s suffering even though it belongs to my adversary?

In a comment on the text, Robert Alter provides answers to both questions. Concerning the first part of the verse, he says: “your adversary’s donkey sprawling under its load. This is the first, but by no means the only, expression of humanitarian concern for animals in the Torah. The suffering of the beast must take precedence over a person’s hostility toward the beast’s owner.” (The Five Books of Moses: A Translation with Commentary by Robert Alter.)

The animal’s suffering takes precedence over your feelings about your enemy. 

About the latter part of the verse, “you shall surely assist him,” Alter writes: “The object of the verb (‘him’) could be either the master or the donkey, but the former seems more likely: a heavily loaded donkey would not be wandering around by itself; the person would know to whom it belongs by seeing the owner; and the moral imperative would be all the more pressing because he is enjoined to give a hand to a man he hates.” (Alter, ibid.)

Undoubtedly, the answers are not mutually exclusive. If someone is in trouble, help them. Don’t stop to ask if they are your friend or your enemy. But then also relieve an animal’s suffering when you can, no matter who it belongs to. Like you, it is one of God’s creations.

I am very fond of something that Henry Beston wrote in his book The Outermost House about the need for us to improve our understanding of animals.

“We need another and a wiser and perhaps a more mystical concept of animals. Remote from universal nature, and living by complicated artifice, man in civilization surveys the creature through the glass of his knowledge and sees thereby a feather magnified and the whole image in distortion. We patronize them for their incompleteness, for their tragic fate of having taken form so far below ourselves. And therein we err, and greatly err. For the animal shall not be measured by man. In a world older and more complete than ours they move finished and complete, gifted with extensions of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear. They are not brethren, they are not underlings; they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendour and travail of the earth.”

—Henry Beston. The Outermost House

All the best,

Author: Gershon Ben-Avraham

Gershon Ben-Avraham is an American-Israeli writer. He lives in Beersheba, Israel, on the edge of the Negev Desert. He and his wife share their lives with a gentle blue-merle long-haired collie. Ben-Avraham earned an MA in Philosophy (Aesthetics) from Temple University. His short story, “Yoineh Bodek,” (Image) received “Special Mention” in the Pushcart Prize XLlV: Best of the Small Presses 2020 Edition. Kelsay Books published his chapbook “God’s Memory” in 2021. חב"ד‎

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