In the final section of Parashat Bo, we read the series of commands which Moshe conveyed to Benei Yisrael immediately after the Exodus from Egypt. These include the law of peter chamor, the special status assigned to a male firstborn donkey (13:2). The Torah requires the owner to redeem the donkey by paying a sheep to a kohein, and if not, then he must kill the donkey.
The Gemara in Masekhet Bekhorot (5b) offers an explanation for why the donkey should be singled out from among all non-kosher species of animal for a special status of sanctity. It explains that, as the Torah relates (12:35-36), Benei Yisrael left Egypt with immense wealth, as they asked the Egyptians for their belongings before their departure, and the Egyptians happily complied. Donkeys were used to haul this precious cargo out of Egypt, and this role served by the donkeys resulted in God’s assigning them a special status of sanctity.
Rav Yosef Chaim Sonenfeld (cited and discussed by Rav Yissachar Frand) remarked that the Gemara here teaches that we become “sacred” by extending ourselves and working hard for our fellow. The notion of donkeys achieving a certain status of sanctity by transporting huge quantities of cargo shows that we become holy people through the efforts we expend on behalf of other people.
Elsewhere, Chazal famously point to the work of a donkey as an apt metaphor for intensive Torah learning. Yaakov, before his passing, compares the tribe of Yissakhar to a “chamor garem” – “strong-boned donkey,” which has been understood as a reference to the scholars produced by this tribe. The donkey’s strength, durability and consistency represent the diligence and discipline of Torah scholars who exert immense efforts and devote great amounts of time to acquire Torah knowledge. Significantly, in regard to the command of peter chamor, Chazal see the donkey as symbolizing not the investment of hard work in Torah study, but rather the investment of hard work for the sake of another person’s mundane, physical needs. In this context, at least according to Rav Sonenfeld’s understanding, the donkey’s work and effort characterize the work and effort people exert to help others transport their belongings. The point being made is that we attain sanctity not only through inherently spiritual pursuits such as Torah learning, but also through the seemingly routine, everyday favors we do for our fellow. As Rav Yisrael Salanter famously quipped, “Another person’s gashmiyut [physical needs] is your ruchaniyut [spirituality].” There is nothing mundane about simple favors such as helping somebody carry his belongings. To the contrary, these deeds, like intensive Torah study, elevate us and make us sacred.