A couple of days ago, I was fortunate to play clarinet at a rare ceremony known as פטר חמור (petter chamor), or the Redemption of the First-Born Donkey. This is a practice in which an owner of a first-born donkey redeems said donkey by giving a Kohen, who is an individual descending from the biblical Aaron, a lamb in exchange. While this mitzvah is a rare one indeed, it does have its basis in the Torah itself (Exodus 13:13, 34:20). The donkey is the only non-kosher animal whose firstborn undergo redemption in Jewish law. Why would G-d choose to sanctify a non-kosher animal in such a way? And out of all animals, why is the donkey selected for such a mitzvah?
The Talmud (Berochot 5b) is a good of a place to start as any. In the Gemara, it is asked why the donkey gets special treatment. Why not redeem the camel or the horse? One of the answers provided is that after receiving the gifts from the Egyptians (Exodus 11:2-3, 12:35-36), they needed a way to transport them. This is where the donkeys enter the scene. Jewish tradition teaches that these creatures did the heavy lifting for forty years without complaining, which is more than I can say for the Israelites at the time. As a result, G-d rewarded the donkey with this mitzvah. What can we learn from this?
Let's get the depressing interpretation out of the way first. The Hebrew word for donkey (חמור) has the same root as the Hebrew word for materialism (חמר). While in Egypt, the Israelites reached a level of spiritual bankruptcy. Even if one has reached a certain low, what we learn from the donkey is that we are not irredeemable. We are able to exert our free will and catapult ourselves to a level even higher than the righteous tzaddik (Bechorot 34). Even if we don't find that interpretation to be palatable, we can still realize that throughout the Torah, the donkey symbolizes the archetypical work-animal. The donkey represents all hard work, and not receiving any of the fame and glory. We can learn that something as mundane as shlepping for a divine purpose is still divine service, and that we can find holiness in unexpected places (R. Hirsch's commentary on Exodus 13:13). We should never scoff at serving G-d, even if it's something like setting up tables or shlepping. Even more generally, we can use this mitzvah to remind ourselves that even materialism can be used to serve the Divine.
I like that the Talmud (Bechorot 5b) concludes that we are supposed to be grateful, but I think it's more than just symbolic gratitude on a general level. I think it could be a sense of gratitude for redemption. As my rabbi, R. Shmuel Herzfeld, points out, this is supposed to inspire us to further redemption. Redemption is something we're supposed to work towards, something we're supposed to work hard for. Whether we talk about personal redemption, redemption of the Jewish people, or of humanity as a whole, it's not a cake walk. We are to be grateful for the fact that G-d gave us free will, the very thing that gives us the opportunity to improve upon ourselves and that which is around us. Redeeming the donkey reminds us that by putting in hard work ourselves, we too can experience redemption within our lifetimes.