Mishpatim: "Neither a borrower nor a ..."

D'var Torah: Mishpatim (Exodus 21:1-24:18)

Rabbi Art Levine, Ph.D., J.D.  
February 17-18, 2012 / 25 Shevat 5772

"Neither a borrower nor a …"

Most Americans over a "certain age" can instantly complete the above adage with the words, "lender be," although the source may be obscure.

In Hamlet (Act 1, scene 3, 75-77), Polonius counsels:

Neither a borrower nor a lender be,
For loan oft loses both itself and friend,
And borrowing dulls the edge of husbandry.

Ben Franklin's Poor Richard's Almanac repeats the first sentence as a philosophical maxim.

But this week's Torah portion teaches us that this advice is emphatically unJewish. Far from discouraging lending and borrowing, Judaism regards these activities (especially lending) as positive mitzvot (commandments). We are not only permitted but required to engage in them, even actively pursuing and initiating opportunities to lend to those in need! Thus, Judaism's version of the adage is the opposite: "Both a borrower (if necessary) and a lender be!"

To understand why, a good place to start is with the concept of ownership. First year American law students learn that ownership can be analogized to holding a "bundle of sticks." One "stick" is the right of exclusive possession. If I own two bottles of water, I can drink one of them in front of a person dying of thirst, and pour the other bottle out onto the ground. "My" water is mine alone to use, not use, waste, or destroy. Another "stick" is the right to allow others to use my property under such terms as I choose, such as renting or licensing it. A third "stick" is my right to "alienate" (sell or give) my property to another. There are many other "sticks," but the basic idea is exclusive and discretionary control.

Judaism's view of ownership is very different. It is expressed in Psalm 24:1: לַיהֹוָה הָאָרֶץ וּמְלוֹאָהּ תֵּבֵל וְישְׁבֵי בָהּ: "The earth is the Lord's and all that it holds, the world and its inhabitants." Therefore, what we consider "our" property isn't really ours at all! G-d has temporarily loaned to us all that we have -- subject to many conditions upon use.

Many of these conditions are stated in Torah. "General" ones include using what we have (breath, strength, intelligence, property) to Pursue Justice (Deut. 16:20), Do what is Right and Good (Deut. 6:18), to Be Holy (Leviticus 12:45), and not to do to others what is hateful to us (including denying help to those in need; we certainly would not want to be turned down in our time of need!). More specific conditions, including many found in this week's Torah portion, include lending money at no interest and without being a demanding creditor. (No threatening letters, late night phone calls, humiliating treatment, etc.).

Does this mean that, if we are to following Jewish values, we must freely and unconditionally lend everything we have to anyone who requests it? Certainly not. Jewish values and law are hardly so impractical or irresponsible. Those who could help themselves but who choose not to shouldn't receive loans. Nor should property be loaned to those who have proven themselves untrustworthy. Lenders must keep careful records and often, require security and/or a guarantor.

Under Jewish principles, lenders are not extending credit; they are sharing their assets at no charge to the borrower, which they rightly expect will be returned in full under almost all circumstances. The responsibility to provide for the truly needly is communal; individuals are not expected to suffer losses through lending to people who cannot be expected to repay. A common practice is for a borrower of money to write repayment checks in advance that the lender will cash at intervals agreed up front).

In the event repayment is not forthcoming, the lender can sell the security and/or pursue the guarantor, and the borrower must sell everything (or, if need be, borrow from another!) to satisfy the debt. Only the minimum needed for dignified (but not comfortable) sustenance and for work capability may be retained. Under the Jewish system, there are no debtor's prisons or harassment, but neither is there bankruptcy discharge. And since lending is an expected mitzvah, there is no shame to borrowing. Not borrowing would be depriving someone of the opportunity to perform an obligatory mitzvah!

Of course, this is not "our system" in America. Even so, each of us can, as individuals and as a Jewish community, adopt it as part of our personal ethical system. Do you have a working car that gets little use? Why not let it be known among friends, neighbors, and the Jewish (or wider) community that it is available? Must every dollar in savings remained locked away in a bank account or mutual fund until we or family members need it? Why not establish, or contribute to, a free loan fund for the temporary use of others – with appropriate guarantee and other safeguards for timely repayment.

According to Pirkei Avot ("Ethics of the Fathers") 5:13: "He who says, 'What's mine is mine and what's yours is yours', is typical, though some say that this was the quality of Sodom."

Let's not live like the Sodomites, whom G-d destroyed for inequity. When it comes to "ownership," let's "own up" to our obligation to share what we have and to temporarily borrow from others what we need. That's a way to build community, as well as doing the right and the good.

Does anyone need to borrow my car? A table and chairs? $500? You know how to reach me.

Shabbat shalom!

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