Tzedakah, Loans, and Human Dignity

Image: Three stacks of coins, with seedlings sprouting from the tops. (nattanan23/Pixabay)

If you lend money to My people, to the poor among you, do not act toward them like a creditor; exact no interest from them. – Exodus 22:24

This verse in Parashat Mishpatim [Laws] establishes the top of Maimonides’ famous ladder of giving tzedakah: it begins im talveh (“if you lend”), not im noteh (“if you give”). Why is lending the preferred form of assisting the needy? And why, if that is the case, must there be no interest charged?

In the 11th century, Rabbeinu Bachya affirmed the teaching of Maimonides, and explained, “The loan is greater than the gift because it strengthens the recipient and he need not be ashamed of it.” He then quoted Shemot Rabbah 31:15:

When you lend money to my people, to the poor among you…  All the creations of the Holy borrow from one another. The day borrows [time] from the night and the night borrows [time] from the day… The moon borrows [light] from the stars… – Shemot Rabbah 31:15

Borrowing and lending are integral to creation; they predate the invention of money. For instance, manure lends its nutrients to the soil, the crop borrows moisture and nitrogen from the soil, the cow eats the crop for nourishment, and leaves its manure on the ground.  All creations of the Holy One borrow and lend from one another, and we are no different, borrowing and lending but remaining equal before God.

Both Maimonides and Bachya are concerned that we preserve the dignity of the recipient of tzedakah. Remember, embarrassing a person is strictly forbidden:

Anyone who humiliates another in public, it is as though he were spilling blood.  – Bava Metzia 58b (Babylonian Talmud)

We must tread carefully when we give tzedakah. It is a mitzvah, but only if we can do it without embarrassing the recipient. Giving assistance in the form of a loan or a business partnership preserves the dignity of the needy person.  It is less demeaning to take a loan than it is to receive charity, because there is an implication that the misfortune is only temporary.

Why then does the tradition discourage charging interest on a helpful loan, say, enough to cover costs or compensate for the unavailability of funds? 

The answer is in the word k’noseh (“like a creditor”). A creditor is in a position of advantage over a debtor. A creditor holds the debt over the head of the borrower. That is not in keeping with the spirit of tzedakah, the root of which means “justice,” not “charity.” Also, interest accrues, and the borrower can wind up deeper and deeper in debt. Therefore we are forbidden to charge interest on such a loan.

For more about loans and tzedakah, see The Highest Form of Jewish Giving might be a surprise.

One popular option for fulfilling this mitzvah is to contribute to your local Jewish Free Loan Society,  To find it, go to the website of the International Association of Jewish Free Loans. By going through such an institution, we remove all embarrassment by making the face of the donor invisible, and normalizing the act of receiving assistance.



#MeToo, #Yitro and TheRaDR


Before I begin, I want to be very clear that I’m offering a drash by another rabbi, Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg, aka @TheRaDR. You can learn about her and her work at her website.

This morning Rabbi Ruttenberg published a thread on Twitter about Moses and #MeToo, a drash on Parashat #Yitro, this week’s Torah portion. My reaction to this thread was something along the lines of “owowowowowowowowowow!”

I would love to hear your reactions to her take on #Yitro. Did “Moses simultaneously [cut] women out of Revelation and [turn] them into sexual objects” with his addition to the command of God?

How might Judaism be different had he not made this insertion?

Click the link. Yes, it’s Twitter, but don’t let that stop you!

Shabbat Shalom! – Beshallach

This Shabbat is called Shabbat Shirah, the Sabbath of Song, because we read the Torah portion Beshallach. It contains the magnificent Shirat HaYam, the Song of the Sea. The Israelites survive the crossing of the Sea of Reeds with a great miracle, and in gratitude, they sing this song. Then they begin their adventures in the Wilderness of Sin (yes, that’s really the name.)

Some words of Torah on Parashat Beshallach:

My Strength Balanced with God’s Song by Rabbi Rachel Barenblat

Beating Karma to the Punch by Rabbi Marc Katz

Shabbat Shira: The Song of Miriam by Rabbi Sylvia Rothschild

I Will Not Forget the Night We Left Egypt by Rabbi Ruth Adar

The Original Fast Food Nation by Rabbi Doug Sagal

Shabbat Shalom! – Parashat Vayechi

The Joseph story comes to its dramatic close this week in Parashat Vayechi. Brash young Jacob who stole his father’s blessing has become dying Jacob, blessing his own children. Foolish young Joseph has become an older, wiser, sadder man, finally reunited with his family.

Our darshanim this week:

Vayechi: Our life is given to us so that we can learn how to die by Rabbi Sylvia Rothschild

What Makes Torah Leadership Possible? by Rabbi Aryeh Klapper

Vayiggash & Vayechi: Forgiving? by Maggidah Melissa Carpenter

Surviving Failure by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks

A Time of Oaths by Anita Silvert

Vayigash: The Economics of Joseph

Image: An early Ramesside Period (1189-1077 BCE) mural painting from Deir el-Medina tomb depicts an Egyptian couple harvesting crops. (Wikimedia: public domain)

Parashat Vayigash – (pronounced – vah-yee-GOSH) is particularly fascinating to me, as I have a background in economics.

Joseph predicted a famine and proposed a program for surviving it in Genesis 41:33-36, when he interpreted Pharaoh’s dream. Joseph’s plan sounded painless: appoint an administrator to gather grain during the years of plenty as a reserve against the years of famine.

Now, in Genesis 47, we see what this program actually required. Once there was no bread “in all the world” (v.13) people bought grain from Pharaoh, and as a result, all the gold and silver in Egypt came into the king’s palace. The next year people had no money, so they traded their livestock to Pharaoh for food. The following year, they traded their land. That year, Joseph ordered a massive resettlement of the population. Every Egyptian family had to leave their home and move to a new location.  Radak teaches that Joseph did this so they would understand that the new homes were a gift from Pharaoh. Rashbam, however, compares his policy to that of the evil King of Assyria in 2 Kings 18. (It was Assyrian policy to resettle their enemies among peoples strange to them, so that they would never again be a threat. This is how the “10 Lost Tribes” were lost.)

In the final year of famine, the Egyptians became bondsmen to Pharaoh in exchange for food and seed for the coming year. So by the end of the famine, Joseph had preserved the lives of the Egyptians but at a very high price: every commoner among them was a penniless slave living on land granted by Pharaoh, and additionally paying a heavy tax.

Harold Kushner points out in Etz Chayim that a generation later, the Egyptians would take revenge on Joseph by enslaving the Hebrews. Economic policy in the ancient world, as in ours, has both short term and long term consequences.

As I write this, children are starving to death in Venezuela, despite it having the largest proven oil reserves in the world.  Our Congress is contemplating a tax bill that will be good for big business, on the promise that it will be good for us all. They might want to remember Joseph, whose economic policy seemed wise until the long term consequences caught up with his people.

This d’var Torah appeared in a slightly different form in the CCAR Newsletter.

Shabbat Shalom! – Vayeshev

Parashat Vayeshev begins the Joseph story in Genesis, one of the world’s great short novels. It tells us how the descendants of Abraham and Sarah came to be in Egypt. In its own right, it is a complete story. This parashah is only the beginning of the story. It also includes one of the more mysterious elements of the story – another, shorter story, the only one that interrupts the Joseph narrative. That’s the story of Tamar, a woman who stands up for herself. You can read her story in Rabbi Rothschild’s sermon, below.

Welcome to the Joseph story. If you feel like you’ve heard it too many times, here’s a tip: notice which character is most attractive to you. Then make an effort to identify with a different character for a while. That initial insight, and the decision to vary it, will vastly enrich your reading.

Some divrei Torah from around the Internet:

The Transformation from Brat to Tzadik Begins Here – Rabbi Sylvia Rothschild

Torah Ecology: Vayeshev by Leslie Cook

Getting Even… Numbers Don’t Lie by Barbara Kipnis Cohen

Here Comes that Loser Dreamin’ Joe #letsthrowhiminapit by Rabbi Seth Goldstein

Tamar, taking her destiny in her own hands by Rabbi Sylvia Rothschild

What Changed Joseph? by Rabbi Ruth Adar (both text and video)

It Doesn’t Have to Be Like This by Hannah Perlberger




“The Place That I Will Show You”

Image: Arial view of the Temple Mount in 2007. (Andrew Shiva / Wikipedia, via Wikimedia Commons)

Parashat Vayera is dense with rich narrative.  The portion is packed with famous stories: Abraham’s hospitality, Sarah’s laughter, Sodom and Gomorrah, Lot’s Wife, the birth of Isaac, Sarah’s treatment of Hagar, and the binding of Isaac. We may think we know the stories, but every year there is something to surprise us.

One item caught my eye this year. After Abraham “lifts up his eyes” at the behest of the heavenly voice, he names the place Adonai yireh, “God will see.” Rashi informs us that:

Its real meaning is as the Targum renders it: The Lord will choose and select for Himself this place to make His Shechinah reside in it and for sacrifices to be offered there.

At the beginning of the Abraham narrative, God tells Abraham to go to a place that God would show him. At the beginning of the Binding of Isaac, again, God says “Go to the place I will show you.” Then, when Abraham has finally reached that place, the high point of his story, literally the “high place” of the narrative, Abraham names the place  “God will see.” This marks the centrality of this spot for Abraham’s descendants. This is the mount where the Temple will be built. This is the spot towards which we face for prayer even today.

God will show Abraham the place, then Abraham sees it.

Abraham lifts up his eyes, and “God will see.”

What does God show us, and what do we see?

Is our seeing entwined with God seeing?

Let’s see what our online darshanim have to say about Parashat Vayera:

Mother of Two – Rabbi Eve Posen

How Does God Appear in the World? – Rabbi Sylvia Rothschild

The Rush of Resilience; Loving More than Yourself– Rabbi David Evon Markus

Harnessing Holiness – Rabbi Nina J. Mizrahi

The Story of Isaac, in memory of Leonard Cohen z”l – Rabbi Dan Fink

The Miracle of a Child – Rabbi Jonathan Sacks

The Care of Visitors – Rabbi Ruth Adar

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