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.
“When 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).
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.
This is the message of the exodus from Egypt: 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.
Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is the chief rabbi of Efrat.