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.

 

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Shabbat Shalom! – Mishpatim

Last week, in Parashat Yitro, Moses delivered the 10 Commandments from God to the people of Israel (Exodus 20). This week he continues to deliver commandments to us, hence the name  Parashat Mishpatim [“Laws”].

It is filled with rules and regulations for Jewish living, and finishes with descriptions and commandments for the three great “pilgrimage festivals” of Passover, Shavuot, and Sukkot. It lends itself to a variety of divrei Torah, because each law in it is a gate to a little world of its own.

You may have wondered how I find the divre Torah that I post on these weekly offerings. Usually it’s pot luck – I notice nice ones during the week as I study the portion myself, and I list them. Sometimes I scramble them together at the last minute, searching the blogs of colleagues for divrei Torah on the portion.

This week I choose to highlight the work of my women colleagues. Women rabbis are no longer a novelty, but we have not yet reached full acceptance even in the Reform world, if you take our salaries as a measure. Some of these women are pulpit rabbis and some work in the Jewish institutional world. I share with you their brilliance in expounding on Parashat Mishpatim:

The Roots of the Amicus Brief by Rabbi Beth Kalisch

The Other Side of the Coin by Rabbi Esther Hugenholtz

Gutsy Listening by Rabbi Elka Abrahamson

Respecting Life, Do Not Add Insult to Injury by Rabbi Sylvia Rothschild

Covenant & Commitment: Who is Responsible for the Vulnerable Among Us? by Rabbi Sue Levi Elwell

Mishpatim – Laws by Rabbi Kari Hofmeister Tuling, PhD

Living the Details of Life by Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

When the plumbers stop society’s moral leaks

One more d’var Torah on Mishpatim, by Rabbi Ed Bernstein

Rabbi Ed Bernstein

Lead-contaminated water in Flint, Michigan has had dire consequences for its 100,000 residents. Lead-contaminated water in Flint, Michigan has had dire consequences for its 100,000 residents.

There’s an old joke about a plumber who was called to a doctor’s home to fix leaking faucet that had kept the surgeon awake late at night. After a two-minute job the plumber demanded $150. The surgeon exclaimed, ‘I don’t charge this amount even though I am a surgeon.” The plumber replied, “I agree, you are right. I too, didn’t either, when I was a surgeon. That’s why I switched to plumbing!”

We can joke about how sometimes we’re at the mercy of a plumber when something goes wrong in our house. However, think about how indispensable they are. Their technical know-how helps preserve the hygiene of entire communities. This week I developed a new appreciation of plumbers. In fact, a lot of them have become my heroes.

I’m sure many of us have been shocked and…

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Shabbat Shalom! – Mishpatim

Image: A gavel and scales, symbols of the law. Photo by succo.

Mishpatim – “Laws” – is named, as all Torah portions are, for the first distinctive word in the portion, but it is also very descriptive. It is chock full of rules and regulations for Jewish living, and finishes with descriptions and commandments for the three great “pilgrimage festivals” of Passover, Shavuot, and Sukkot.

It lends itself to a variety of divrei Torah, because each law in it is a gate to a little world of its own. Here are some drashot you may enjoy:

Judaism Abhors Child Abuse by Rabbi Adin Even-Israel Steinsaltz

A Lender Be by Rabbi David Kasher

Torah MiSinai is Only One Half of the Conversation by Rabbi Sylvia Rothchild

Sweetness in Judgment by Rabbi Rafi Mollot

The Torah and Slavery by Rabbi Don Levy

The Sanctity of Laws by Rabbi Jeff Goldwasser

The Angry Ox and the Chapel Hill Shootings by Rabbi Rachel Barenblat

Chapter, Verse, Word & Letter by Rabbi Ruth Adar

 

Mishpatim – Han Solo shot first and what the Torah says about it. — By Ben

I love this drash on parashat Mishpatim! Whatever your feelings about Star Wars, it’s a great illustration of how Torah works.

Six Degrees Of Kosher Bacon

darth kotel But how does he wrap Tefillin?

George Lucas has rereleased the original Star Wars trilogy several times over the years. And in 1997 he started to make changes, most infamous of which is known as Greedo Shoots First.

You see in all versions of the film, Han Solo is at the famous Cantina bar in Mos Eisley, when he is confronted (at gun point) by the bounty hunter Greedo. As Han tries to talk his way out of his abduction, he slowly reaches for his gun. In the original cut, Han, with the quick draw, pulls out his gun, fires, leaves Greedo dead, and casually walks out of the Cantina. However, George Lucas digitally changed the film in 1997 so now Greedo fires his blaster at Han Solo first, misses, and Han shoots subsequently. Watch below if you want to see for yourself.

Now I know it looks like they shot at the…

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Chapter, Verse, Word & Letter

The beginning of Parashat Mishpatim (Exodus 21:2 – 22:16) is interesting on a couple of counts.

First, the parashah begins on verse 2 of chapter 21 of Exodus. Students sometimes ask, “Why does it begin on the second verse?”

If you look at a Torah scroll, there are no divisions into chapters. There are also no vowel markings, and nothing to serve as punctuation. Anyone preparing to chant Torah has to use a book called a tikkun to memorize these things beforehand.

This is script from the Torah scroll.
This is script from Genesis, in the Torah scroll.

Jews divide the text into verses, the length of which were handed down to us from the Masoretes, rabbis who specialized in the text from the 6th to the 13th centuries. They transmitted the knowledge of where the verses end and begin.

The books of the Torah are also divided into parshiyot [portions]. These are rather like chapters, but they are not the chapters in modern Bibles. They are marked by gaps in the Torah text, and we see those gaps very early, even in the Dead Sea Scrolls.

Modern-day chapters of books were not a Jewish innovation. Rather, an Archbishop of Canterbury named Stephen Langton set chapter divisions for the books in 1227. Wycliff’s English Bible translation (1382) was the first Bible to appear with the chapters, which quickly became standard in all Bibles.  Since neither Stephen Langton nor John Wycliffe were interested in Jewish opinions about the text, their chapters do not always match up with our parshiyot. Mishpatim is just such a parashah, which begins on verse 2 of chapter 21 of Exodus.

The second interesting item in the beginning of this parashah is its first letter. Here is the full first verse:

וְאֵ֙לֶּה֙ הַמִּשְׁפָּטִ֔ים אֲשֶׁ֥ר תָּשִׂ֖ים לִפְנֵיהֶֽם׃

It may be translated: “And these are the rules you shall put before them.”

Look at the far right end of the line, at the little vertical line with two dots below it. That’s the Hebrew letter “vav,” which can be translated in many ways but here is best read “and.” Such a tiny word – only a letter! And with the rest of the word to which it is attached, “V’ehleh,” it means “And these are.”

We are taught (by Rashi and others) that this word “v’ehleh” in Biblical Hebrew tells us there is continuity between what went before and what follows. That is, the rules that follow are of one piece with the rules that came before this word. What came before? The Ten Commandments. So with one little word, the writer is letting us know that not only were the Ten Commandments given at Sinai; so were the other laws [mishpatim] that follow.

Every tiny detail of the Torah is significant. This is why one of our earliest sages, Joshua ben Perachyah said: “Get yourself a teacher and find yourself a friend” with whom to study. (Avot 1.6) For those who must study by themselves, a good commentary can be a help: through the commentaries we hear the voices of many teachers.

Do you study with a teacher or a friend? Is there a commentary with which you particularly like to learn?