TheTorah lists a series of commands which Moses conveyed to the Israelites immediately after the Exodus from Egypt. These include the laws of peter chamor, the special status assigned to a male firstborn donkey, in which the owner is required to redeem the donkey by giving a sheep or goat to a priest.
The Talmud offers an explanation of why the donkey should be singled out from among all non-kosher species of animal for a special status of sanctity (Bechorot 5b). It explains that, as the Torah relates, the Jewish people left Egypt with immense wealth as they asked the Egyptians for their belongings before their departure, and the Egyptians happily complied.
At that moment in time it was donkeys which were used to haul the cargo out of Egypt, and this role served by the donkeys resulted in God assigning them a special status of sanctity.
Rabbi Joseph Chaim Sonenfeld (the founder of the Eda Charedit in Israel) writes that we learn from this passage in the Talmud that we can 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 us that we become holy people through the efforts we expend on behalf of other people.
Elsewhere, our sages point to the work of a donkey as a metaphor for intensive Torah learning. Jacob before his passing compares the tribe of Issachar to a “strong-boned donkey” (Genesis 49:14), which has been understood as a reference to the scholars produced by this tribe. The donkey’s strength and durability represent the diligence and discipline of Torah scholars who exert immense efforts to acquire Torah knowledge.
Significantly, regarding the command of peter chamor, the donkey is seen as symbolising investment not in Torah study, but rather for the sake of another person’s mundane, physical needs.
The point being made is that we can attain sanctity not only through inherently spiritual pursuits, but also through the seemingly routine, everyday favours we do for our fellow. As Rabbi Yisrael Salanter, the founder of the musar movement, remarked: “Another person’s physical needs is your spirituality.”