Re-thinking the relationship between the wealthy and the poor

PARSHAT MISHPATIM

Efrat, Israel — “When [Hebrew: ‘im’] you lend money to My people, to the poor person with you, you shall not behave toward him as a lender; you shall not impose interest upon him.” [Ex. 22:24]

How can we ensure that Jewish ideals—such as protecting the downtrodden and most vulnerable people in our society—emerge from the abstract and find expression in our daily lives? Our weekly portion, Mishpatim, in addressing the issue of lending, provides an insight to this question, and sheds light on the core Biblical values of compassion and empathy.

The verse cited above raises several questions. First, in stating the prohibition on charging interest, why does the Torah employ a word—im—that usually means if? Our Sages note that the use of “im” in this verse is one of just three instances in the entire Torah in which the word means when instead of if [Midrash Tanhuma]. What is the significance of this exceptional usage of the word?

Moreover, why does the verse seem to repeat itself (“to My people, to the poor person with you”)? Seemingly, just one of these phrases would have been sufficient to teach the lesson.

Additionally, “you shall not behave toward him as a lender,” says the Torah. Why is this so? Our Sages teach that not only is it forbidden for the creditor to remind the debtor of the loan, but that the creditor must go out of his way not to cause the debtor embarrassment [ibid.]. If, for example, the creditor sees the debtor walking towards him, it is incumbent upon the creditor to change direction. Why not remind the debtor that the loan must be repaid? After all, the debtor took money from the creditor, did he not?

Finally, why is there a specific prohibition against charging interest at all? With respect to the reason for the prohibition against interest, Maimonides goes so far as to codify: “Anyone who writes a contract with an interest charge is writing and causing witnesses to testify that he denies the Lord God of Israel…and is denying the exodus from Egypt.” [Laws of Lenders and Borrowers, 4:7] Why the hyperbole? After all, there is no prohibition against charging rent for the use of my house! Why should there be a prohibition against charging rent for the use of my excess funds?

A key lesson from our Sages provides the philosophical underpinnings of the answers to these questions. They teach that a person must view himself as if he were the poor person in need of support. We easily deceive ourselves that we are immune from the fate of poverty, a regrettable attitude that can harden us to the real needs of those seeking assistance.

I must look at the indigent as if he were I, with the thought that I, but for the grace of God, could be he.
Rabbi Hayyim ibn Attar, in a brilliant illumination, beautifully explains this passage in his commentary, Ohr HaHayyim, which enables us to understand this difficult character change. In an ideal world, he teaches, there ought to be no rich and no poor, no lenders and no borrowers; everyone should receive from the Almighty exactly what they require to live.

But, in His infinite wisdom, this is not the manner in which the Lord created the world. He provides certain individuals with excess funds, expecting them to help those who have insufficient funds, appointing them His “cashiers” or “ATMs”, or agents in the world.  Hence, we must read the verse as, “If you have extra funds to lend to my nation—which should have gone to the poor person, but are now with you through G-d’s largesse—therefore, you were merely given the poor person’s money in trust, and those extra funds that are you ‘lending him’ actually belong to him.”

If you understand this fundamental axiom – that the rich person is actually holding the poor person’s money in trust as an agent of the Divine – then everything becomes clear. Certainly, the lender may not act as a creditor, because she is only giving the poor man what is in actuality his! And, of course, one dare not charge interest, because the money you lent out was never yours in the first place.

This is the message of the exodus from Egypt, the seminal historic event that formed and hopefully still informs us as a people: no individual ought ever be owned by or even indebted to another individual. We are all owned by and must be indebted only to God.

This essential truth is the foundation of our traditional legal system, which is uniquely just and equitable: it is especially considerate of the needs of the downtrodden and enslaved, the poor and the infirm, the orphan and the widow, the stranger and the convert, the “chained wife” and the indigent forced to sell their land. From this perspective, not only must we submit to Jewish law, but it is crucial that our judges be certain that Jewish law remains true to its ethical foundations.

About the Author
A leading voice in the Modern Orthodox world, Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is an educator, social activist and author who serves as Founder and Chancellor of the Ohr Torah Stone network of pioneering men's and women's institutions. He is also Chief Rabbi of Efrat, Israel, and the founding rabbi of Lincoln Square Synagogue in New York City. He earned semicha from Rabbi Soloveitchik at Yeshiva University, and a PhD from NYU. (Photo credit: Chaim Snow)
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