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Vayikra, 25:35-36: “And when your brother becomes downfallen, and he stretches out his hand with you, you will support him, and even the stranger and dweller, and he will live with you. Do not take from him neshech and tarbit, and you will fear your God and your brother will live with you.”
Rashi, Shemos, 22:24, Dh: Neshech: “Ribbis (Interest), (it is called neshech) because it is like the bite of a snake, that makes a small wound in the foot, and he (the person bitten) doesn’t feel it and suddenly it spreads and swells up to his head, (it is the same with ribbit in that) he doesn’t feel it and it is not noticeable until the ribbis gets higher and takes from him a great deal of money.”
The Torah repeats the prohibition to lend to or borrow from a fellow Jew with interest. On first glance, one would not think that lending with interest is among the most serious of sins, such as murder or stealing, yet Chazal and the commentaries speak very severely about this sin. Indeed, the first source of its seriousness is in the Navi Yechezkel1 where he states that one who lends with interest will not live. The Malbim explains this to mean that he will not live in the Next World.
The Sages go even further than this: The Gemara2 describes the Prophecy of Yechezkel in the Valley of the Dry Bones where he resurrects people who had sinned in various serious ways, or who had no merit of Mitzvot. The Pirkei D’Rebbe Eliezer3 elaborates on this episode and relates that Yechezkel successfully resurrected all of these sinners with the exception of one man. When he asked why this man could not be resurrected, he was told that this man had sinned by lending money with interest. This is quite remarkable given that the other people who were resurrected had sinned very severely and yet they did merit resurrection, and only the person who lent with interest did not.
The obvious question arises as to why of all the many serious sins, only lending with interest is deserving of such a severe consequence as not being resurrected. The answer is given that the person coming to ask for a loan is in desperate need, and helping him is considered as ‘giving him life’, as demonstrated by the Torah repeatedly says that by helping him, ‘he will live with you’ in that he will be able to sustain himself. However, when one lends this struggling person with interest, he is not saving his life because the person will eventually have to pay back the loans with the additional interest. Consequently, measure for measure, this person will not merit to be given life in the resurrection of the dead because he did not give life to the struggling person.4
This answer is understandable yet it does not seem to fully suffice, as there are a number of other Mitzvot where a person could help give another person financial help, such as charity, hosting guests and other forms of kindness, yet we do not see that one who does not help a struggling person through these Mitzvot is punished with not meriting Resurrection.
Therefore, it is possible to elaborate on this answer that when one lends with interest, he is worse than one who merely does not help the poor person, because not only is he not helping him, but he is actually harming him and making things worse. The damage that is done by lending with interest is demonstrated by the reason cited by Rashi to explain why interest is also called neshech, which literally means ‘bite’. That when one borrows with interest, the harm of the interest is comparable to a small bite of a snake on the heel. However, in time, this small wound inflames and swells until it spreads to the whole body, causing great harm. Thus, when one lends with interest, he is not only not sustaining the subject of the loan, rather he is making things worse, and is therefore actually exacerbating the ‘lack of life’ of the poor person.
There is another very strongly worded Rabbinic saying that can be explained to compliment the idea that one who lends with interest does not merit Resurrection: The Torat Kohanim relates: “When The Holy One took Israel out of Egypt, He said, ‘I am bringing you out on condition that you do not lend with interest’.”5 Why of all the mitzvot, did God make the Exodus dependent upon keeping the mitzvah of not lending with interest?
The Nodah BeYehuda6 answers based on the idea the ultimate purpose of bringing the Jewish people out of Egypt and into the land of Israel was not for their life in this World but after the Resurrection. The Gemara7 says that people who die out of Israel will suffer in the time of Resurrection because they will have to roll all the way to Israel from their burial places. This is so undesirable that it is one of the reasons given as to why Yaakov insisted on being buried in Eretz Yisrael. All this only pertains to someone who will merit Resurrection, but one who lends with interest will not be resurrected. Accordingly, there is no purpose in bringing him out of Egypt into Israel to avoid the pain of being transported to Israel for the Resurrection, because this person will not be resurrected anyway!
We have seen that lending with interest is treated so seriously because it involves causing harm to an already down-trodden person. In addition to the obvious lesson to be very careful to learn and keep the myriad laws of interest, this idea can be expanded to other areas of life. For example, a person may make a pledge to give money to a needy person or to a person raising money for a good cause. Giving to such causes is of course a great mitzvah, but it can happen that the pledger is slow to actualize his promised, and sometimes, he even does not reply to the requests from the person asking, when he follows up. This can cause far more anguish than would have been caused by not making such a pledge at all. The same applies to other areas of kindness – a person must be very careful to not cause more pain to the person in need. May we merit to apply the lessons of interest to all areas of our lives.