Behar- Biting Our Brethren

In the midst of a sedra which begins by discussing the sanctity of the Jewish People’s connection to Eretz Yisrael (Shemita, Yovel), the theme quickly jumps to the sanctity of Jews’ relationships with other Jews. A theme quickly develops of the importance of helping out a fellow Jew in need (the repeated phrase “כי ימוך אחיך- if your brother shall become destitute”), and we learn of the commands of buying property at a fair price, lending money, and proper treatment of an Eved Ivri, Jewish slave.

One of the most distinctive of these directives motivated by “כי ימוך אחיך” is the mitzva against charging interest:

אַל-תִּקַּח מֵאִתּוֹ נֶשֶׁךְ וְתַרְבִּית, וְיָרֵאתָ מֵאֱלֹהֶיךָ; וְחֵי אָחִיךָ, עִמָּךְ. אֶת-כַּסְפְּךָ–לֹא-תִתֵּן לוֹ, בְּנֶשֶׁךְ; וּבְמַרְבִּית, לֹא-תִתֵּן אָכְלֶךָ. אֲנִי, ה’ אֱלֹקֵיכֶם, אֲשֶׁר-הוֹצֵאתִי אֶתְכֶם, מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם–לָתֵת לָכֶם אֶת-אֶרֶץ כְּנַעַן, לִהְיוֹת לָכֶם לֵאלֹקִים.

You shall not take interest from him or increase, but you shall fear your G-d, and your brother will live with you. You shall not give him money with interest, nor give him food as interest. I am Hashem your G-d, who took you out of Egypt to give you the land of Canaan, to be your G-d. (ויקרא כה:לו-לח)

It is very much understandable why lending money with interest is not a proper response to “כי ימוך אחיך”- treating one’s brother this way will only lead him to be more poor. However, the passuk seems to go further than this- it connects the directive against charging interest with living in Israel, and our relationship with Hashem Himself. What is so bad about lending with interest that it is compared in the pesukim to the all-important mitzvot of fearing G-d and living in Eretz Yisrael?

Rav Yehuda Loewe of Prague (better known by his initials, Mahar”al), in his mussar work נתיבות עולם, matches our concerns and raises us a question. He asks:

ויש להבין עונש הרבית כי על הגזל הגמור יש על זה לאו אחד לא תגזול ועל רבית יש על זה כמה לאוין, ואצל בן נח הוא הפך זה כי בן נח דינו מיתה על הגזל ובודאי על הרבית אינו חייב כלום

And we must try to understand the seriousness of charging interest, because outright theft only violates one negative commandment, yet charging interest violates several commandments. [On the other hand,] for a non-Jew, the opposite is true, for he is liable for death if he steals, yet there is obviously no punishment if he charges interest. (נתיבות עולם למהר”ל: נתיב הצדקה פרק ו, עמ’ קפא)

Maharal asks a very troubling question, in order to  remind us of the seriousness of charging a fellow Jew interest on a loan. Why is it so much worse for a Jew to acquire money from another Jew through usury, as opposed to breaking into his house to steal it, yet a non-Jew receives the death penalty for stealing, and is let off scott-free for charging interest?

Maharal answers:

כי ישראל הם עם אחד ובשביל כך יש להם א-ל אחד ולכך ציוה שיהיה מלוה זה לזה, וזה לוקח רבית ונושך חבירו לכך הלוקח רבית מהפך המתוק למר שמורה לקיחת הרבית הפך זה שמורה ההלואה. ולכך אף הנותן עובר, דסוף סוף הרבית והנשך מורה שאין האחדות בישראל שאין אחדות בהם.

For Israel are one nation and for this they have one G-d, and for this reason, He commanded that they lend money to one another. One who charges interest and bites his friend effectively changes something sweet to bitter, for the one giving money has become one taking money. For this reason we say that even the one who paid back the money with interest is liable, for, at the end of the day, the plague of interest will continue to bite until, eventually, there is no longer any unity in the People of Israel. (שם)

Charging interest is so much more serious than outright theft, because much more happens with the מלווה בריבית than money being taken. The societal effect of interest being charged is tremendous- people will no longer feel comfortable asking their Jewish brethren for a loan if they know they will lose out in the end. Effectively, the fate of the destitute Jew will have been sealed even before he is in need of the money, and Jewish society will crumble, something which is much worse than mere robbery.

After clarifying this, Maharal returns to our original question, of why usury is so integrally connected to “אני ה’ אלוקיכם אשר הוצאתי אתכם מארץ מצרים לתת לכם את ארץ כנען.” He answers:

ומה ענין זה לכאן שאמר ‘לתת לכם את ארץ כנען להיות לכם לאלקים? אבל הפירוש הנראה כי כאשר נכנסו ישראל לארץ היו ישראל עם אחד לגמרי…  ולא ונעשו בני ישראל מחוברים להיות עם אחד לגמרי עד שבאו לארץ.והיו ביחד בארץ והיה להם מקום אחד הוא ארץ ישראל, ועל יד ארץ ישראל הם עם אחד לגמרי, ולכך כתיב גם כן להיות לכם לאלקים, כי יש להם א-ל אחד, ולפיכך ‘את כספך לא תתן בנשך ובמרבית לא תתן אכלך

And what is the explanation of ‘in order to give you the land of Canaan to be for you a G-d’? It appears to me that when the Jewish People entered the Land of Israel, they needed to be completely [united as] one nation… and the Jewish People could not be connected to be one nation completely until they came to Eretz Yisrael. They would be together in the land in one place, which is the Land of Israel, and through Israel they would remain one people. And therefore it is written ‘to be for you a G-d,’ for only there do they have one G-d, and therefore [we were given the commandment of] ‘and your money may not be given as interest…’ (שם עמ’ קפב)

Maharal already explained the detriment that loaning money with interest can cause to society- it causes those who are in need of help to be afraid of asking for it, for fear that they will be taken advantage of. This is very bad, as it very much takes away from the one-ness of our nation.

However, at the time that this mitzva is given in our sedra, these concerns were not so relevant, as our ancestors were still in the desert becoming a nation. However, upon entering Eretz Yisrael, Maharal writes, there is an obligation- to be unified, to work together and care for one another, to ensure there is never a case of “כי ימוך אחיך.” In effect, upon entering Eretz Yisrael, we immediately and objectively must work to fulfill, as the passuk says, “לתת לכם את ארץ כנען, להיות לכם לאלוקים,” by working together to be one people. After that, there cannot be any more lending with interest, for it has become much more serious than mere stealing- it directly works against G-d’s purpose in taking us out of Egypt. Furthermore, this act of dividing Am Yisrael violates the passuk of “לתת לכם את ארץ כנען, להיות לכם לאלוקים,” effectively denying G-d’s oneness and His correctness in taking us out Egypt and giving us the Land of Canaan.

It is my belief that this principle does not merely apply to charging interest on a loan- it is equally relevant to any behavior which undermines Jewish unity and Jewish society, regardless of its intention. Following the Jews’ original entry to Eretz Yisrael, and, by extension, our modern re-entry, we have an integral obligation to keep our society together. Any effort against this, which could lead to society fraying and disintegrating, is just as bad of a transgression as charging interest on a loan to a fellow Jew- the “נשיכה,” bite, poisons society and very much goes against G-d’s intentions of unity when He took our ancestors out of Egypt thousands of years ago.

This is why I found a statement by Rav Moshe Sternuch, head of the Eda Haredit Bet Din in Jerusalem, particularly problematic. On Sunday, the Haredi leader said:

“The Holy One, blessed be He, sent us this warning from a distant country in order to remind us that such a punishment exists… when myriads are converted in the army and out of the army by government-employed rabbis… By law they are completely gentile, and afterwards, the daughters of Israel marry those gentiles, against the strict prohibition on forbidden relationships.” (http://www.timesofisrael.com/rabbi-nepal-quake-a-warning-to-jews/)

The idea of blaming the deaths of over 7,500 Nepalese and 1 Israeli (Or Asaf, z”l), on a subjective religious matter in Israel, one which not all rabanim would say that Rav Stenrbuch and his extremist views are correct, is practically a ludicrous absurdity. Aside from this, it is not a stretch to say that statements like this (or similar ones blaming natural disasters on non-Religious Jews in Israel- see Superstorm Sandy 2012 and Hurricane Katrina 2005, also blamed on similar circumstances by other Haredi leaders) violate the exact prohibition as charging interest on a loan.

When one charges interest on a loan, they are effectively destroying the positive societal relationships between Jews, severing the one-ness that we, as a nation, are charged to keep upon entering Eretz Yisrael. Directly attacking fellow Jews, “biting” them and “poisoning” their opinion of others, accomplishes the same goal. Whether or not one agrees with Rav Sternbuch’s statement, the public way that such a disrespectful claim was made against fellow Jews was clearly this type of scenario- it very much undermined the whole purpose of ” לתת לכם את ארץ כנען, להיות לכם לאלוקים.” In fact, I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that if every single Jew in Egypt related to his brethren with the same lack of regard as Rav Sternbuch does, we would have never been taken out of Eretz Mizrayim in the first place and would still be slaves there!

Ever since Jews began to return en masse to Eretz Yisrael over 100 years ago, the obligation of our pesukim has returned to its original strength. We cannot do things that will put a distance between us and our fellow Jews- we must maintain our one-ness for the sake of Hashem and His putting us in Eretz Yisrael.

With Hashem’s help, we will return to this level of unity, and merit the ge’ulah very soon.