Kitetze : Helping someone up without dropping down

In this week’s Parasha “Ki Tetze”, it says the following:

You shall not deliver a slave unto his master” (Devarim 23:16)

On this verse, The RMb"M says the following:

Giving shelter to a fugitive slave, and not handing him over to him from whom he has escaped, is an expression of mercy and benevolence. Not only are we not to hand him back, but we must also attend to all his needs and not distress him in any way.” (Guide 3:39)

In my opinion, the previous verse has practical implications for people “enslaved” by addictive personalities. Although there are real differences between actual bondage vs. mental slavery, the comparison is striking (if you'll pardon the pun). At the risk of tainting the humility that was attributed to real slaves (back in the day), the lessons are still pertinent in our own times.

Mental Slavery: Addictive Personalities

In many ways, addicts (and most other types of self-absorbed people) are constantly besieged by the obstacle of their own harmful, narcissistic, and habitual ways.  We must do everything in our power to safely help these people escape their tendencies—provided they are willing to take a step forward. Like a slave that longs to (or manages to) escape... an addict must be willing to take the first step in order to break the destructive cycle. Not helping people in their moment of need (when we have the most influence) is like placing obstacles before them.

The concept above can be likened to the commandment against placing obstacles before the blind.  According to the Prophet Isaiah, the evil inclination represents an obstacle that must be cleared away.  Thus, the book of Isaiah proclaims that the Prophet will say the following in G-D’s name: “Pave, Pave, clear the way; remove the obstacles from the way of my people.” (Is 57:14) The famous commentator RaShY explains this verse to mean we should clear away the evil inclination from our ways. In other words, we are commanded to do everything in our power to help ourselves flee a destructive or self-absorbing habit or addiction. Thus, we should certainly make the effort to help someone else do the same thing - when we are cautiously able.  Just as helping a real fugitive-slave is seen as an act of mercy and benevolence (according to the RMb"M), so is helping someone who has broken the initial barrier of his or her enslaving evil desire. For someone with an addictive personality, that may mean providing shelter. The RMb"M confirms that just as protection is owed to the "lowest among men, the slave, how much more must we do our duty to the freeborn, when they seek our assistance." (Guide 3:39).  Taken to its logical conclusion, the RMb"M's commentary can be further applied to non-addicts.

On the next verse of the Torah (Devarim 23:17) --which talks about providing shelter and goodwill for the slave-- the RMb"M says the following:

This applies to the most humble of men, the slave. Not only must one give refuge to him who seeks it, there is also a duty to care for his welfare and supply his needs, and that one should speak with him with tact and consideration, a fortiori if a person of high station should seek your aid, all the more so, it devolves upon you to satisfy his wants.” (Guide 3:39)

But how far does it really have to go? Would the RMb"M have condoned the housing of an addict who could hurt our family’s spiritual (and perhaps physical) well being – Heaven forbid?

Again, the RMb"M comes through with a clear definition: 

"On the other hand, when sinners and evildoers seek our help, it must not be granted; no mercy must be shown to them, and the course of justice  must not be interfered with, even if they claim the protection of that which is noblest and highest; for "Though shall take him from mine altar that he may die-- Exod xx1, 14-- (Guide 3:39). 

But the question still remains. How much is really expected of us in the performance of this mitzwah?

I think the answer lies in the Sforno’s take on this verse. Rabbi Ovadiah Sforno was one of the glories of Italian Jewry. He was known as one of the greatest legal and Torah commentators of Italy. Born in the last quarter of the fifteenth century, he experienced the agony and trauma of the Spanish Inquisition. In his commentary on this verse, the Sforno took a more cautious approach (than the RMb"M) about rescuing a slave from his master. The Sforno explains that the Torah surely commands the provision of sanctuary to a slave, but in a cautious way… He chalks this up to the need to insure the high standards needed to govern a Jewish Army. In other words, we should prepare for the ensuing challenge that occurs upon accepting an outsider (of different moral values) into our home (or army), even if he has been humbled by slavery.

The Sforno’s commentary actually works well with the RMb"M’s commentary in the following way. The Sforno is not saying (outright) not to rescue a fleeing slave. On the contrary, his commentary says that fleeing slaves may need “to be rectified”. The point is that helping someone up should never come at the expense of lowering our own moral standards. Compromises to our own values are strictly prohibited.  It is the other party that needs to be rectified. This implies that a cautious approach to the concept of rescuing the fleeing slave is critical for our spiritual well being.  We must be prepared to embark upon a perilous journey. Although a slave (by his very nature) should be humble, as the RMb"M suggests, he may not be a morally uplifting person (to say the least). This lesson also applies to helping someone with a harmful behavioral pattern like an addict.

In conclusion, we should all do our utmost to help others out of bad situations--whenever practical. However, we should always guard our own standards at the same time. 

Factors such as the spiritual and physical well being of our family and friends must be seriously weighed and considered before making a real rescue attempt. May we all find the strength to know the difference between a foolish vs. a wise rescue attempt in the future. And may all who do embark on such missions be blessed with the strength and guidance of Kel Shakkai, Ha Kadosh Baruch Hu...  Like tying a string around our finger... so too can an additional mitzwah serve as a fence around our existing spirituality.