Parashat Mishpatim

by Rabbi Isaac Mann

One of my favorite derashot (homiletical interpretations) is one that is found in this week’s Torah portion in connection with the mitzvah of lending money to those in need.

The Torah writes (Ex. 22:24) — “If you lend money to My people, to the poor among you, do not act toward them as a creditor; exact no interest from them.” To be sure, the wording of the Torah, using the conjunction im  (im kesef talveh et ami…), which usually means “if,” suggests that  lending money to the poor is optional and not a mitzvah (religious obligation) per se. But the Rabbis interpreted this im to mean “when” rather than “if” (see Mekhilta ad loc.; see also Rashi on this verse). Thus they read it as if it says, “When you lend money…do not act towards the recipient as a creditor who charges interest.” Besides not charging interest, a Biblical prohibition, the Rabbis prohibited even walking in front of the borrower in a manner that will put him ill at ease.

There does not appear to be an explanation in the Torah for the restriction on taking interest. One can speculate of course that it is based on the general obligation of giving charity and being compassionate, as G-d is, towards the poor (see Deut. 15:7ff), but the Torah in this particular instance does not cite G-d’s compassion for the poor as the basis for the prohibition even though that is mentioned earlier and later in this very chapter (vv. 22 and 26). So here comes the derashah that I find particularly profound and illuminating. It is found in the 18th century commentary of Or Ha-Hayyim, by the famous exegete and kabbalist Hayyim ibn Attar.

Instead of reading the verse as it’s usually read — “When you lend money to My people, to the poor among you,” he suggests that the second phrase should be understood as an explanation for the first. Thus, “when you lend money to My people, it is because the [money of] the poor is with you.” In Hebrew the phrase et he-ani imakh,(“the poor among you”) can also be read as “that of the poor is with you,” namely, that which belongs to the poor is in your possession. What we have here is actually a religious philosophical explanation for the mitzvah of lending money. One doesn’t lend money that belongs to him. Rather, in the world that G-d created sometimes individuals were not deemed capable or worthy of having all their parnassah (sustenance) come directly from their labors. Instead G-d gave it to others, namely, the rich, to be overseers and trustees of the money that really belongs to the poor.

Thus, when you lend money don’t take interest — for the money is not yours to exact payment for its use by the poor. You are just the guardian entrusted by G-d to distribute the funds to those who are truly entitled to them. It’s really their money, not yours. This concept fits in nicely with the general approach of Judaism to giving “tzedakah,” whose root meaning is justice, not charity. Our distribution of funds to the poor or needy is an act of justice, for we have been entrusted with their money (et he-ani imakh). Therefore any sense that by doing so we are simply acting out of “charitableness,” a kind of noblesse oblige, is foreign to the true spirit of the Torah. When we give or lend money to others, we should do so with the sense that G-d privileged us to be the trustees and to be on the giving end — but those on the receiving end are no less worthy than we are and should be treated with dignity and respect, for indeed it is their money that made us rich.

Shabbat Shalom!


Rabbi Isaac Mann is on the rabbinic faculty of AJR. He is the rabbi of the Austrian Shul on the Upper West Side and serves as the chaplain at Metropolitan Hospital and Bronx-Lebanon Hospital.