Mishpatim (Exodus 21-24 )
In the Portion of Mishpatim the Torah instructs us with regard to lending 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." (1)
On superficial analysis these Mitzvot seem to be fairly straightforward and easy to understand, however Rav Chaim Shmuelevitz derives a very important insight about the Torah's attitude to chesed (kindness) from these verses: (2) This passage is dealing with a person who fulfills the great kindness of helping his friend by lending him money, and yet the Torah gives him a number of Mitzvot to ensure that he perform this chesed in the most optimum way and not diminish its effect. It is instructive to analyze these verses more carefully to note their common theme:
"Do not act toward him as a creditor." Rashi, based on the Mechilta, 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 (ribbis). Rav Shmuelevitz cites a number of Rabbinic sources that emphasize the seriousness of lending with interest; for example he brings a Medrash that for every sin there are Malachim (angels) in Heaven who try to find a merit for the sinner, the one exception to this case being that of ribbis. Rav Shmuelievitz points out that the severity for lending with interest is difficult to understand. It is clear that even one who lends with a small amount of interest, is doing a great chesed to 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 person 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.
Rav Shmuelevitz explains that the common denominator of these laws is that they stress the importance of doing chesed in as complete a manner as possible, without lessening the effect of the chesed. 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. Rav Shmuelevitz says further that the greater a person's appreciation of the importance of chesed, the more strictly he is treated when he fails to act according to his recognition. Thus, one who lends and yet charges interest is treated particularly harshly because he appreciates the value of helping the borrower, and nonetheless he chooses to charge him with interest.
We learn from the mitzvot relating to lending money that when a person is doing a chesed for his fellow it is essential that he strive to maximize the positive effect of his chesed and not let it be tainted in any way. This applies in many instances in our daily lives; very often a person is approached to do some kind of favor; he may agree to do it, but with a reluctance that makes the person in need feel uncomfortable about inconveniencing him. Rather, the giver should strive to be as positive as possible about helping his friend. This greatly enhances the actual positive benefit at results, because, as well as being helped, the person in need is not made to feel guilty about his request. Similarly when one gives to charity he can do it with a smile or with a sour face. The Gemara tells us that one who gives with simcha, receives no less than 17 brachos for his mitzvah, whereas one who gives unenthusiastically only receives 6 brachos.(3) One who performs an act of kindness with a lack of enthusiasm greatly diminishes the effect of his kindness.
One final example is when one asks someone else to do a chesed in a particular way and he agrees, but the giver may not take care to do it according to the requirements of the one in need. For example, a wife may ask her husband to clean the house of the mess that has accumulated. He may well have a different conception of a 'tidy' house from that of his wife and only tidy up according to his assessment of what is required. In truth, however, he knows that his wife would like him to clear up according to her level of tidiness. In order to do this chesed properly he should strive to do it in the manner that she requires. We have seen that the mitzvot with regard to lending teach us the importance of doing chesed in as complete a manner as possible. May we all merit to help others in the most effective way possible.
1. Mishpatim, 22:24-26.
2. Sichos Mussar, p.191-197.
3. Bava Basra, 9b.