YOUR BANKRUPT BROTHER – Behar/Bekhukosai —Lev.25-27 – by Rabbi Baruch Cohon
This week’s double reading covers the last three chapters in the Book of Leviticus, and also covers several subjects, so let’s single out just one. In the classic translation of Chapter 25 verse 35 we read: “If your brother be waxen poor…” Waxen poor??? Like a bad face job? No, that is the accepted Elizabethan English for the Hebrew word yamukh, which means a personal or economic downfall. More about yamukhlater. What we can learn initially from this section is how to treat that brother.
First the Torah tells us that if this poor loser comes to you for help, you are to strengthen him. If he is a native Jew, or a convert or, as Ibn Ezra includes, a resident alien, let him live. Help him live. Don’t let him starve. As the Hertz commentary points out, no other society had such rules. Not only in the days of the Torah over 3,000 years ago, but right up to the Roman emperor Constantine who instituted poor-relief in the year 315. Even Constantine’s legislation was repealed by Justinian a couple of centuries later. And notice that the Torah directs this rule to the individual, not the state. This is not a “stimulus package.” It is an Israelite’s duty to save a neighbor.
Secondly, we will read that we are not to take interest or usury from him. Yes, he needs a loan. He needs money to feed himself and his family. He needs money to start over, to get back on his feet. If I want to charge him interest, don’t I have a right to it? No, says the Torah. “Revere G-d, and let your brother live with you.” Don’t try to profit from his loss. Both in Biblical and Rabbinic law, a fine line separates legitimate interest – neshekh —from exorbitant usury —tarbis. Here both are prohibited.
Ever been to a Jewish Free Loan office? Every Jewish community of any size has one. In Los Angeles where I live, the JFL lends for economic and medical emergencies, or to help a small enterprise get started, and its borrowers are not all Jews either. Of the thousands of loans on their books, they show a repayment record “in excess of 99%.” Not a bad record. That is Leviticus in action.
Now back to yamukh. Notice that the text specifies a downfall. This current condition was not necessarily always there; this fellow was not always broke. Maybe he was once as successful as you are. Maybe he just made some mistakes. Maybe he got robbed or cheated. Or maybe he is not very smart. This is not a condition he planned. No “entitlements” here. He is out of luck and out of money. Your job is to help him if you can. Of course we can ask “what if this fellow makes a racket out of his poverty? Do you still have to help him?” A legitimate question to be sure. The Book of Leviticus does not treat that possibility, but Talmudic justice would put it in the category of deceit. Last week we read commandments like “Do not deceive your neighbor or lie.” Using the shelter of bankruptcy to take advantage of other people’s generosity is also a form of deceit. Not worthy of help.
Here we are dealing with something more positive. The valuable message of this week’s reading is our personal responsibility to extend a helping hand in an emergency. The Klee Yokor commentary discusses the definite prohibition on taking interest for your help in this situation. Whatever you give this down-and-outer is not a business loan. By contrast, if a rich man asks you for money, go ahead and charge interest. Says the Klee Yokor: “Whoever owns a business always looks for G-d’s help, because of the doubt: will he profit or not?” So he borrows money. The lender also takes a risk, so he is entitled to charge interest. “But,” says the commentary,“seek out the meaning here. The basic purpose [of this ruling] is to forbid usury.” Your unfortunate brother must not be your victim.
“V’khai akhikha — Let your brother live.”