Mishpatim- Proactive Protection: The Importance of Sticking Together in Difficult Times

Our סדרה, which addresses many of the civil law topics within הלכה, broaches an interesting matter immediately before the end of the third עליה. Coinciding with the halfway point of ספר שמות is the command:

אִם-כֶּסֶף תַּלְוֶה אֶת-עַמִּי, אֶת-הֶעָנִי עִמָּךְ–לֹא-תִהְיֶה לוֹ, כְּנֹשֶׁה; לֹא-תְשִׂימוּן עָלָיו, נֶשֶׁךְ. אִם-חָבֹל תַּחְבֹּל, שַׂלְמַת רֵעֶךָ–עַד-בֹּא הַשֶּׁמֶשׁ, תְּשִׁיבֶנּוּ לוֹ. כִּי הִוא כְסוּתֹה לְבַדָּהּ, הִוא שִׂמְלָתוֹ לְעֹרוֹ; בַּמֶּה יִשְׁכָּב–וְהָיָה כִּי-יִצְעַק אֵלַי, וְשָׁמַעְתִּי כִּי-חַנּוּן אָנִי.
If you will lend money to my nation, even to the most destitute around you, don’t be a creditor, nor should you charge interest. If you will take your neighbor’s garment as a collateral, you must return it to him before the sun goes down. For it is his only covering, a garment for his body, and it will be when he cries out to me, I will listen, for I am merciful. (שמות כב:כד-כו)

Following so far? One who lends money to his fellow Jew must do so in a way befitting G-d’s chosen nation. He may not be in the face of the recipient of his loan, badgering him for the money back. He may not charge punitive interest rates, and, if he asked for a collateral, the lender must return it in time for its normal use by its real owner. He cannot withhold the collateral to extort his money back. Everything seems pretty clear so far. And then, at the end, G-d adds:

וְהָיָה כִּי-יִצְעַק אֵלַי, וְשָׁמַעְתִּי כִּי-חַנּוּן אָנִי
And it will be when he cries out to me, I will listen, for I am merciful.

G-d Himself will intervene if a lender doesn’t treat the recipient of his loan properly.

This makes a lot of sense, but anyone familiar with the basic axioms of Judaism already knows that G-d is merciful. He watches over us and will certainly intervene in an unfair situation, such as the one brought in our פסוקים. So, why the need to emphasize this here?

Ramban answers with a very interesting insight into the Jewish psyche. When one lends money to another Jew, he naturally will assess the man who is standing across from him, ready to shake his hand and take his money. The lender will consider his financial stability, his trustworthiness, and other factors. Unfortunately, he may also attempt to judge his fellow’s righteousness, and may wrongly decide that, after loaning the money, he will not return the collateral. He may believe that there’s no need to, because even if he cries out to G-d, the Lord wouldn’t listen, for he’s not worthy. To avoid this cruel misconception, Ramban writes, the פסוק emphasized “ושמעתי כי חנון אני”- even if, by some chance, the recipient of the loan is completely unworthy, G-d would listen anyway.

While this is crucial in the context of lending money, it’s also a very important lesson in our broader interactions with fellow Jews. It is very easy to judge every person that we interact with on any given day, to decide if they are “worthy” or not. This is, however, very wrong, for as our פסוק shows us, every Jew is important and G-d listens to each and every one of us no matter what our worth. It is certainly not our place to decide who is “righteous,” we must put aside these preconceptions in order to unite, for unity will be far way as long as we let our (sometimes wrongful) perceptions distance us from fellow Jews.

This is especially important now as we celebrate שבת שקלים this week. Every year, on the Shabbat immediately preceding ראש חודש אדר, Jews around the world read from פרשת כי תשא about the annual communal collection of the Half-Shekel:

כִּי תִשָּׂא אֶת-רֹאשׁ בְּנֵי-יִשְׂרָאֵל, לִפְקֻדֵיהֶם, וְנָתְנוּ אִישׁ כֹּפֶר נַפְשׁוֹ לה’, בִּפְקֹד אֹתָם… זֶה יִתְּנוּ, כָּל-הָעֹבֵר עַל-הַפְּקֻדִים–מַחֲצִית הַשֶּׁקֶל, בְּשֶׁקֶל הַקֹּדֶשׁ
When you count the heads of the Jewish People, according to the their counts, each man will give a “ransom of his soul” to G-d for the counting… this is what they shall give, everyone who passes among them who is numbered- a Half-Shekel in the holy Shekalim… (שמות ל:יב-יג)

Rav Shimshon Rafael Hirsch emphasizes the theme of unity in the collection of the Half Shekel. Aside from fundraising for the משכן, and counting the Jewish People, the collection has a deeper message- it symbolizes the unity of the Jewish People, for everyone (over the age of 20) contributes to this cause. Every year, the Jews are reminded of the importance of every one of them, no matter religious or financial background, putting aside their personal interests to focus on national goals, such as Jewish growth and עבודת השם- in these areas, we must forget about the individual and concentrate on the עם, an idea that is especially timely about two weeks before we celebrate our national victory over the Persians who sought to kill us.

I believe that, with this in mind, we can explore the פסוק in פרשת משפטים with a new perspective. According to Ramban, G-d warned us that when interacting with fellow Jews, we must not separate ourselves from them by judging them and putting them down, because “ושמעתי כי חנון אני- G-d will passively listen to all that speak to Him, and intervene.” Conversely, when we do heed this warning, and act as an עם instead of 6 million plus individuals, G-d, in His ultimate mercy, intervenes as well, but more actively- He will proactively help us out of our crisis. This is clearly demonstrated in the times of Chanukah and Purim- as soon as Jews gathered together, Hashem stepped in and saved us. More recently, in all of the troubles that have hit the State of Israel, G-d intervened as soon as we realized we were in trouble and got together, even though many Jews were not necessarily praying to Him. The IDF’s fortunate discovery of the terror tunnels from Gaza into Israel, and their prevention of the planned Rosh Hashana massacre, is perfect example of this- only through the blind unity that we demonstrated after the kidnapping and killing of the three teenage boys could we merit such a miraculous proactive salvation.

The promise of “ושמעתי כי חנון אני” comes with a huge responsibility- we, the Jewish people, putting aside our differences for the sake of our nation. With recent current events, such as Prime Minister Netanyahu accepting the US Congress’s invitation to speak there, and upcoming events, such as Israel’s elections at the end of next month, threatening to to pull Jews apart, we must work so much harder to maintain our unity and stay together.

This time period immediately before Purim is a unique opportunity for תפילה and תשובה- it is an ideal time to focus on our national unity and put aside our differences. If we, as a nation, unite now, when it is so difficult and seems so unlikely, then we will, with G-d’s help, merit a complete proactive fulfillment of “ושמעתי כי חנון אני” to our constant prayers of “ותחזנה ענינו בשובך לציון ברחמים,” very, very soon. Shabbat Shalom.