Weekly Torah Commentary — Mishpatim February 8, 2013

In this week’s reading, the Torah discusses how we should lend money to our fellow in need.

The Torah states: “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. If you take your fellow’s garment as security until sunset, you shall return it to him. For it alone is his clothing, it is his garment for his skin – in what should he lie down? – so it will be if he cries out to Me, I shall listen, for I am compassionate.”

This passage seems to be fairly straightforward and easy to understand, however we need to look a bit deeper. When a person’s kindness moves him to lend money to a needy friend, the Torah outlines how he should do so in order that his kindness should be of the highest quality.

“Do not act toward him as a creditor.” Rashi explains that this means that if the lender knows that the borrower is, at present, unable to pay back the loan, then the lender should not make him feel pressured about it, rather he should behave as if the loan never took place, so as not to embarrass the borrower.

“Do not lay interest upon him.” This refers to the prohibition of lending money with interest. A number of Rabbinic sources emphasize the seriousness of this commandment. It is clear that even one who lends with a small amount of interest, is acting with kindness toward the borrower who is in urgent need of money immediately and is prepared to pay the extra interest at a later date. Nonetheless the Torah treats this issue very strictly.

“If you take your fellow’s garment as security until sunset, you shall return it to him.” When the borrower is unable to pay back the loan the lender is permitted to take his personal items as collateral to ensure payment of the loan. However, he must return the items when they are needed by the borrower. For example, clothing is needed in the daytime, therefore the lender may only keep it in the night and must return it in the day so that the borrower can use it. This law seems to nullify the whole function of collateral, for if the borrower can still use it when he needs it, he will be far less motivated to pay back the loan. Nonetheless, the Torah demands that the lender respect the borrower’s basic needs.

The common denominator of these laws is that they stress the importance of doing acts of kindness in as complete a manner as possible. Consequently, even though it is a great mitzvah to lend someone money, the lender must be extremely careful not to diminish the effect of his kindness through pressuring the borrower in any fashion. The Sages teach taht the greater a person’s appreciation of the importance of kindness and generosity, the more strictly is he expected to adhere to this commandment. Therefore, one who lends with interest is treated particularly harshly because he appreciates the value of helping the borrower, but still chooses to profit from his kindness.

We learn from this that when we act kindly towards our fellowman, it is essential to maximize the positive effect of our kindness and not let it be tainted in any way with selfishness. This principle can be applied daily. For example, if someone asks you to do a favor, you may agree but reluctantly and thereby make the person who asked very uncomfortable. Instead, we are to be as positive as possible about helping others. In the same way, when giving charity, let us do it with a smile, rather than a frown! Our tradition tells us that when we give with joy, we receive no less than 17 blessings in return, whereas one who gives unenthusiastically only receives 6.

In Tune with Torah this week = applying the lesson of this commandmentwith regard to lending, may we do all our acts of kindness thinking more of the other person than of ourselves.

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