Justice Is In The Details


“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” [Exodus 22:24].

How can we ensure that Jewish ideals — such as protecting the downtrodden and vulnerable — emerge from the abstract and find expression in our daily lives? Mishpatim, in addressing the issue of lending, provides an insight to this question, shedding 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.

Candlelighting, Readings:
Candlelighting: 5:23 p.m.
Torah: Ex. 21:1- 24:18; 30:11-16
Haftorah: II Kings 11:17-12:17
Havdalah: 6:25 p.m.

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. 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?

We’re taught 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 I was that person; there, but for the grace of God, could be me.

Rabbi Khayyam ibn-Attar, in a brilliant illumination, explains this passage in his commentary, Ohr HaHayyim: In an ideal world, he teaches, there ought to be no rich, no poor, no lenders, 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 God 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,” His 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 God’s largesse — therefore, you were merely given the poor person’s money in trust, and those extra funds that you are ‘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 the lender is only giving the poor man what actually belongs to the poor person! 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. From this perspective, our judges must be certain that Jewish law remains true to its ethical foundations. 

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone and chief rabbi of Efrat.