Mishpatim 25 Shevat 5772 / February 17-18, 2012
In this week’s portion, Mishpatim, God instructs Moses to transmit numerous laws that the Israelites are required to follow. Having just received the 10 Commandments, the Israelites now become subject to a smorgasbord of both criminal and civil laws.
For example, we find legal statements such as:
“One who strikes his father or mother shall surely be put to death.”
“If a person digs a pit and doesn’t cover it and an ox or a donkey falls into it [and dies], the person [who dug the pit] shall pay restitution [to the animal’s owner].”
“If you encounter an ox of your enemy or his donkey wandering, you shall return it to him.”
Some of the laws contained in this portion we might conclude to be common sense, while others may seem a bit harsh (see, e.g., “You shall not permit a sorceress to live.”).
One of the most interesting laws we find deals with how we assist those in financial need.
“When you lend money to My people, to the poor person who is with you, do not act toward him as a creditor; do not lay interest upon him.”
Why the emphasis on giving loans?
While giving straight up charitable dollars is wonderful and essential, giving loans often better helps preserve the self-respect of the borrower, and often results in positive action towards achieving financial independence due to the sense of gratefulness to the lender and the accompanying desire to repay the loan. Note the incredible success of micro-loan programs around the world.
Why can’t we charge interest to poor Jews but we can charge interest to non-Jews?
Because the Torah specifically states the prohibition against charging interest to “MY people” – meaning the Israelites. The Torah’s requirement is for us to take care of our own first.
Why would Jews ever lend money to poor Jews rather than non-Jews, when it is permissible to collect interest when lending to non-Jews, allowing for a profit?
Due to the phrasing of the Biblical statement – “WHEN you lend money” – the ancient rabbis, with Rashi taking the lead (Rashi’s bio here), determined that assisting the Jewish poor with a loan is an obligation; not an option. Thus, helping the Jewish poor is not a choice, but rather, a commandment.
How does this commandment manifest itself today?
Did you know that many communities have Hebrew Free Loan funds that provide interest-free loans to Jews in need? See, for example, the organizations in Detroit (http://hfldetroit.org/) and Los Angeles (http://www.jfla.org/).
Take the time to learn about the institution(s) in your community focused on providing interest-free loans for those in need. Consider making a donation to your local fund, or to providing an interest-free loan to someone who has asked for your support. Recognize that we too may someday find ourselves in need of financial assistance, that having the ability to lend money is a blessing, and that to do so for Jews in need, interest-free, is a significant piece of our tradition. Finally, note that the importance of helping our own financially get on their feet does not abrogate our responsibility to care for those in need around us, regardless of their religious affiliation.