This page presents insights by Rabbi Tuvia Bolton on the weekly Torah portion.
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Parshat Behar-Bechukotai (5762)
This week's section contains the prohibition of taking interest on money loaned to a Jew by a Jew (25: 35-9).
This is not understood. What is wrong with taking interest? Money that is loaned becomes inactive for the giver; he cannot invest or even pay his bills with it, while the borrower can use and even profit from it. So why not allow the loaner to at least cover his own loss and take interest?
Furthermore, although it is forbidden to take interest from a Jew nevertheless it is permissible, and according to some, even mandatory, to take interest from a gentile. It is forbidden to rob or cheat a non-Jew why is it permissible to take interest?
To understand all this here is a story:
It was well after midday and hundreds of guests had been waiting almost two hours in the crowded wedding hall for the wedding to begin. The food was prepared, the tables were set, the band was sitting on the stage, even the bride and groom were ready, but the Baal Shem Tov (Besh't for short) wasn't there, and the wedding couldn't begin without him.
No one really thought it would be an ordinary wedding. The groom was an orphan that the Besh't had adopted, and the bride, also an orphan, had been raised in the home of one of his holiest pupils, Rabbi Zev Kitzes. But now the two Rabbis were secluded in one of the side rooms of the wedding hall and no one dared to so much as knock on their door. Who knows what awesomely mystical and intensely holy matters they were occupied in!
No one dreamed that the delay was because of …. money.
It seems that both Rabbis had promised dowries of two hundred rubles (a small fortune) to the newlyweds, but so far only Rabbi Kitzes brought money and he refused to begin the wedding until the other party came up with his share. After all, the future of the newlyweds was at stake.
The strange thing was that the Besh't didn't seem to be worried in the least. He just calmly sat back and waited, as though it was only a matter of time until the money would drop from heaven! The minutes ticked by.
Suddenly the sound of horse's hoofs was heard outside, the door to the hall burst open and a well-dressed, bearded Jew ran in trying to talk in a low voice, "Where is the Baal Shem Tov?" He gasped, trying to catch his breath. "I must see him! Is he here? It is really urgent!"
Everyone recognized the rider; it was none other than the wealthiest Jew in the area, Rav Shraga. It must have been a pretty important thing that kept him from the wedding up to now. They pointed to the room where the Besh't was.
Ignoring their warnings he ran to the door, knocked once or twice, opened it and entered.
"Rebbe!" He said to the Besh't closing the door behind him, "You must run! Leave here immediately!" He was on one knee before the seated rabbi and was almost in tears. "Rabbi! I have a horse and here is some money, run for your life!!"
The Besh't shrugged his shoulders and turned his hands palms up as to say "what for?" and Rav Shraga continued.
"It's very serious! It's awful!! Just a few hours ago the Mayor came to me at the risk of his life, and told me that that devil, the Baron is blazing mad. He claims you owe him one thousand guilder! You know how much money that is? It's a fortune! And how much the Baron hates Jews! He said that if he doesn't get the money in cash by sunset he's going to imprison you, and that means sure death. Your only hope is to run!! Here, see? I brought a horse and …. "
The Besh't just looked at him as though he just heard the most trivial news and said "Just go to the Baron and fix it up!"
"But Rebbe!" exclaimed Rav Shraga "OY!! If only I could! If it was only so easy! Rebbe, Where can I come up with such a sum? I would have to sell two of my factories and even then I wouldn't be paid in cash, and there's no time!!"
The Besh't just looked at him serenely and repeated, "Just go to the Baron and fix it up."
Rav Shraga understood that something supra-rational was going on here. He took one last look at the Besh't, turned, ran out the door to his horse, jumped on and rode off in the direction of the Baron's huge castle trying not to think of what he was doing; "a Chassid does what his Rebbe says, joyfully" he thought to himself.
One hour later he was being led by four huge guards into the Baron's chambers. Surrounded by servants and soldiers the evil man was seated in an ornate chair next to a huge table. "Ahh Jew! I suppose you have come to pay the debts of your thieving Rabbi; ONE THOUSAND in CASH?! RIGHT??" He asked with a wicked smirk. "Let's see the money, Mister Jew!"
Rav Shraga suddenly felt a strange calm come over him, as though he was talking to his best friend. "Certainly, dear Baron! But first, could you be so kind as to show me the account, I would just like to see that everything is in order."
The countenance of the Baron suddenly changed. "That is a reasonable request." He said congenially. Then turning to one of his servants he requested that he bring the books.
Moments later the servant returned, the Baron took the book from his hands and began to turn the pages. "Ahh, here it is! Israel Baal Shem, here it is….. hmmm. A strange silence filled the room broken only by the Baron's occasional murmuring. Without looking up from the book he mumbled to himself, "Well, a man is just a man. After all we are all only human."
No one dared interrupt him or ask for an explanation. He just kept looking at the figures going over and over them and repeating the same phrase, "Well a man is just a man etc." until he looked up at Rav Shraga apologetically.
"Well, looks like I made a mistake. The figures don't lie. It seems that your Rabbi loaned me some money, a fairly large sum, and, well in any case he owes me nothing. In fact……… I ….. owe …… HIM! Just a moment." He spoke as though he was really ashamed. He stood, walked to a safe in the wall, turned the dial back and forth several times, opened it's thick metal door, counted out a large number of coins, put them in a small bag and handed them to the Jew saying,
"Here! It's two hundred guilder And tell him I'm sorry. Actually I'm beginning to rethink my entire attitude toward the Jews. Tell him I would like to pay him a visit at his convenience."
Rav Shraga took the bag, warmly shook the Baron's hand, assured him he would relay his message and in less than an hour was back in the room where the two tzadikim (holy Jews) were sitting.
"Ahh! Boruch HaShem! Thank G-d!" said the Besh't when he saw Rav Shraga enter. He took the bag of coins and without even looking inside, gave it to Rav Kitzis and said "This is what I was waiting for, now the wedding can begin."
This answers our questions. The purpose of the Jewish people is to purify the world as is explained in length in the writings of the Chassidic Rebbes. In kabalistic terms it is called "Raising the sparks".
In other words, G-d created this world like a mixed up jigsaw puzzle; all we see are seemingly unrelated pieces. But when the Jews use the world according to the Torah and each piece is put in its proper place then it becomes possible to see the entire picture; that it is all one creation and the Creator is making it constantly.
In fact it is likened (in the 'Song of Songs', the Zohar and elsewhere) to a marriage, linking the Creator to the creaton. It began when G-d gave the Torah, continues each time a Jew uses the physical world properly and reaches its fulfillment with the Moshiach.
But this is much easier said than done. For instance, one of the most difficult things to use properly is money (some even call it the root of all evil).
Often the only way to purify it is "above understanding" such as in our case; not taking interest from a Jew.
That is why G-d connects this prohibition of taking interest with the redemption from Egypt (25:38) because both are above reason.
When He took them from Egypt He separated them from the rest of the world with an eternal, unbreakable covenant above all logic. As it says near the end of our section (26:44-5) that even if the Jews disobey the entire Torah and are cast into exile;
"Nevertheless even in the land of their enemies I won't rescind my covenant with them …. And I'll remember the first covenant I made when I took them from Egypt"
But when it comes to dealing with a non-Jew one can act normally and take interest as the Baal Shem did with the Baron, thereby purifying both the money and the Baron as well, to make… a wedding
This will be the main accomplishment of Moshiach; making the marriage between what is eternal, above all logic and the world. As the Maimonides says at the end of his work; "The Moshiach will teach the Jews Torah …. And fill the world with the knowledge of G-d like the sea is filled with water."
It all depends on us to bring;
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