Behar: Don't live in the "Shark Tank"

Who said, “Neither a borrower nor a lender be”?   Although Ben Franklin is often credited, it was actually Shakespeare, who put these words into the mouth of his character Lord Polonius (Hamlet Act I, Scene III).   How ironic, then, that the phrase is used as if it was indeed an adage of wisdom/fiscal responsibility when, in reality, Polonius was a fool!

When it comes to lending money to the poor, Judaism says that anyone who does not do so is a fool.  He or she thinks that his or her money belongs to him/her alone, and is solely the result of his/her efforts … rather than as a gift (or loan) from G-d.

I sometimes think about this when my wife, Barbara, and I plan our annual tax-deductible “charitable” contributions.  First, we decide how much we can afford to give, our range being 10-20% of net income (the latter amount being consider the halachic ideal (Talmud, Ketubot, 50a. Shulchan Arukh, Yoreh Deah, 249:1; the Jewish sage Vilna Gaon regarded 20% as the minimum.)  

After allocating to the synagogues to which we belong in the US and in Israel, we each choose other recipients.  I know in advance my wife’s first priority: the Jewish Free-Loan Society.  

Barbara’s priority is in keeping both with the Torah’s demands that we help the poor and its prohibition on charging interest on loans made to those in need. (Leviticus 25:36-37)  Interest-free loans are understandably contrary to normal lending industry practice.  The whole point of making a commercial loan is to charge interest: lenders are in business to “rent” their money.  Why would they do so for free?  (It’s easy to imagine one or more "sharks" on the popular TV program asking this!)

Even more importantly, the last person or organization to whom/which a commercial lender would lend money would be a destitute borrower, least able to pay back the loan.  Thus, the poor, who are in greatest need of loans, are the least able to receive them, and when they can, they must pay the most interest to offset the greater risk to the lender. 

But the Torah’s priorities are the opposite of commercial lending.  Since we have been allowed by G-d to “earn” or otherwise receive our money on condition that we share part of it with others, we have no “business” seeking to profit from sharing.  

Hence, we should look for opportunities to fulfill our obligation, and do so gladly and gratefully.  (As I write this, I am reminded that many years ago I read the autobiography of Booker T. Washington, founder of the Tuskegee Institute.  He wrote that he was never embarrassed to ask for money for his cause, not only because he wholeheartedly believed in it, but because he found that wealthy people were often grateful to learn of worthwhile subjects for their philanthropy).

Even if you do not consider yourself “wealthy,” you are not exempt from the obligation to gratefully give 10-20% of your net income to people or institutions in need.  

 An excellent way to do this is to give your money to a Jewish free loan society.  Is there one in your community?  You can easily check the Internet, call your nearest Jewish Federation, and/or click: http://www.freeloan.org.  If your community lacks such a society, you can certainly contribute to the closest one, or better yet, investigate the feasibility of creating one.  

In addition, or alternatively, consider contributing "seed money" in any amount to your rabbi's discretionary fund, to be used for confidential interest-free loans to those in need in your own schul. 

That person who gives freely to the poor, his righteousness will endure forever. Psalms 112:9.  

Shabbat shalom!

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A bird that you set free may be caught again, but a word that escapes your lips will not return.
Jewish Proverb