Saturday, / July 13, 2024
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Uninterested, But Caring

By Rabbi Menachem Brod

Translated by Yoni Brown

Let’s say your friend asks for a loan. You might imagine — it depends on how I feel that day… If you’re feeling generous, you’ll say yes. If not, you’ll dodge the question or tell him you can’t help him today. But the truth is that the moment your friend asks, you’ve got a Mitzvah to oblige. 

After the lofty story of the Exodus and the extraordinary spirituality of Mount Sinai, the Torah goes straight to the nitty-gritty. One of the many practical Mitzvos in this week’s Torah reading is the requirement to give interest-free loans. The Torah tells us we are obligated to lend money whenever someone asks for a loan. And without interest.

Don’t Get Bogged Down

In today’s economic environment, loans are the domain of banks and similar financial institutions. These institutions aren’t motivated by goodwill — they have their eye on profit. We’ve all been on the receiving end of a telephone call from one of these institutions, imploring us to borrow. When we’re in a pinch, it’s tempting to take them up on their offer and only later realize what we signed up for. 

The Torah asks us to consider a more pro-social system, urging us to grant loans out of a spirit of friendship and mutual responsibility so that those in need can access credit without falling into the bottomless pit of interest payments. We can all see the necessity for free credit, but the responsibility to provide it can be demanding if left up to each individual.

An Interest-Free Society

For centuries, a mainstay of every Jewish community was the “free loan society” or Gemach. With the arrival of Jewish immigrants to America in the late 19th century, dozens of Gemachs sprung up immediately. These organizations are an organic reaction to the Torah’s injunction, and exist purely to help those in need. They offer an island of humanity in a cutthroat economic environment.

The Lubavitcher Rebbe called for each synagogue to establish a Gemach, making it a place for learning, prayer, as well as good deeds. You could even set up a Gemach with friends. The oldest one in America, for example, was established by eleven friends who pooled their savings. They initially raised just $95 and loaned out five and ten-dollar increments.

An Institution of Trust

The institution of the Gemach calls for a high degree of mutual trust. If we are lucky enough to be the recipients of a lender’s confidence, we must take care to return the funds on time. Delaying repayment hurts the institution and prevents other people from benefiting. 

Although it may seem mundane, the Torah’s injunction to not charge interest tells us how far we must go to take responsibility for one another. Far from being a step down from the spirituality of Mount Sinai, developing the sense of social responsibility this Mitzvah calls for is the heart of what the Torah’s spirituality is all about.


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