Behar/Bechukotai 5761

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Behar/Bechukotai

This d’var Torah was originally distributed by Kolel: The Adult Center for Jewish Learning during the year 5761 and can be found in its archives.

Behar-Bechukotai (Leviticus 25:1- 27:34)

OVERVIEW

The Torah portion Behar has two main themes: the Sabbath of the Land, and rules for a moral social structure. The Sabbath of the Land, called shmitta, occurs once every seven years; the land lies fallow as an acknowledgment of God as the Creator. Every seven cycles of seven years, there is a “Jubilee” year, called yovel, in which slaves go free, certain debts are canceled, and land returns to its original titleholders. Further laws are given pertaining to debts and property: one must help people avoid debt-servitude, and one must help people to avoid losing their property. Interest and oppressive financial practices are prohibited. The parsha ends with a general reminder to keep God’s laws, especially the Sabbath and the prohibition on idolatry.

IN FOCUS

“If your brother falls low, and his hand falters beside you, then you shall strengthen him- sojourner or resident- and he will live with you. Do not take from him interest and increase-you shall revere your God, and your brother shall live with you. Do not give your silver for interest nor your food for increase.” (Leviticus 25:35-37)

PSHAT

In addition to the positive commandment of supporting those who fall into poverty or hard times, there is a prohibition on loaning money or capital on with interest. The basic intent of the Torah seems to be directed against “loan-sharks,” people who would take advantage of another’s economic troubles and profit from them. Exodus 22:24 and Deuteronomy 15:3 both prohibit creditors from harassing or pressing poor debtors for payment, so it would make sense that this verse too is primarily a prohibition against profiting from someone else’s poverty.

DRASH

Last year, we discussed at length the first part of this passage, the positive commandment to support those who find themselves in trouble. Focussing on verse 36, we find that the rabbis understood this verse to be part of a general prohibition against charging simple interest as the condition for making a loan of either money or capital. There is an immense amount of halachic literature dealing with this subject- after all, financial regulations tend to be complex in any society- and over the course of history, certain legal loopholes evolved in response to the need for credit in an advanced economy.

Aside from the financial technicalities of defining permitted transactions, the words for “interest and increase” have themselves been the subject of some debate. We have rendered the Hebrew word neshech as “interest” and tarbit as “increase.” Rashi understood these two words to be synonymous, and “doubled up” so that a violator would be liable for two separate prohibitions. (!) On the other hand, the Torah itself uses one for money transactions and one for material capital, so maybe that’s the intended distinction.

In terms of basic definitions, tarbit comes from the word to increase or make larger, so it’s easy to understand that the lender’s wealth or share will “grow” with the additional payments he demands. Neshech, on the other hand, is a more obscure word; most commentators relate it to the word neshichah, “biting,” perhaps with the idea that interest takes a “bite” out of the borrower’s finances.

A novel way to understand the image of “biting” comes from the Hasidic teacher R. Moshe of Kobrin:

    Do not give your silver for interest. . . . this is the continuation of the previous verse, which tells us that “your brother shall live with you,” a reference to the need to give tzedakah. The word for interest used here is neshech, which is related to the word neshichah, which means “biting.” When you give tzedakah to a poor person, do not use the opportunity to “bite” him by reprimanding him and telling him to mend his ways. Instead, give the tzedakah cheerfully.

R. Moshe’s words as applicable today as they were in his day: all too often, the poor are regarded as morally unworthy, or in need of correction before assistance. Of course there is a need for training programs and job assistance and the like, but Judaism calls for preserving the dignity of the poor as much as possible. People who need assistance are in an unequal power relationship with the assister. Just as the Torah warns us not to take financial advantage of that inequality, neither are we to take moral advantage, putting ourselves in the position of judging someone else’s worthiness as a person. There’s a idiom which says “don’t bite the hand that feeds you,” but the Torah turns it around, saying: “don’t bite the one that you’re feeding.”

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