The Cost of Lending at Interest

This week's Torah reading includes the prohibition against giving or taking interest.1 The passage concludes:2 "I am G‑d your L-rd who took you out of the land of Egypt to be your G‑d."

On this verse, the Sifra comments:

From this verse [we may derive the principle]: Whoever accepts the yoke of [the prohibition of] interest accepts the yoke of heaven. Whoever casts off the yoke of [the prohibition of] interest casts off the yoke of heaven….

For whoever acknowledges the mitzvah of interest acknowledges the exodus from Egypt. Whoever denies the mitzvah of interest is as if he denies the exodus from Egypt.

We must understand: Why is the prohibition against interest so closely related to the exodus from Egypt and the acceptance of the yoke of heaven? Rashi3 explains that just as at the time of the exodus, G‑d differentiated between the firstborn and all others, so too, He will be able to pick out a Jew who lends money to a colleague and attempts to excuse himself by saying that the money belongs to a non-Jew.

This insight is, however, insufficient, because it relates only to one aspect of prohibition against interest lending with interest while claiming that the money belongs to a gentile. Moreover, even in that instance, it does not apply in an instance when the lender makes that statement to mislead a mortal, e.g., if the borrower knew that the money belonged to a Jew, he would not take the loan, or the court would not allow the loan to be given. It is applicable only when the lender states that the money belongs to a non-Jew, thinking that G‑d will not make a distinction regarding the matter. As such, he denies the exodus at which time, G‑d did make fine distinction.

Moreover this does not, however, deal with the connection between the prohibition against interest and the exodus as a whole, nor does it mention the connection between interest and the denial of the yoke of heaven.

There are commentators who explain that when a Jew lends a fellow Jew money without interest, he does not consider the profit he could have made with the funds. Helping a fellow Jew without seeking profit thus reflects his trust in G‑d and his acceptance of the yoke of heaven. In contrast, when a person lends money at interest, he shows that he does not trust G‑d, and thus casts off the yoke of heaven.

But this interpretation leaves room for questions:

a) It places the emphasis on the person's trust in G‑d (or lack of it), and not on his acceptance or rejection of the yoke of heaven;

b) This trust or lack of trust is not directly connected with the question of interest, but rather with the mitzvah of doing deeds of kindness. Before mentioning the prohibition against taking interest, the Torah reading states:4 "When your brother will become impoverished… you should support him." This implies that one should lend him money without interest.

When a person, concerned about his own livelihood, refuses to give an interest-free loan because he desires to do business (or earn money) with every last penny of his resources, he shows a lack of trust in G‑d. He has not, however, violated the prohibition against interest, since he did not give the poor person the loan.

A Twofold Dynamic Earning One's Keep

Accepting G‑d's yoke as expressed in the observance of the mitzvos implies that G‑d takes an active role in a Jew's Divine service. This is hinted at in the blessing we recite before performing a mitzvah , when we praise G‑d "who sanctified us with His commandments," i.e., the mitzvos we perform are His mitzvos; He also performs them.5

There are two dimensions to G‑d's performance of mitzvos:6

a) G‑d's performance of the mitzvos precedes the performance of the mitzvos by the Jewish people, as reflected in our Sages' statement:7 "What He does, He commands Israel to do";

b) His performance of the mitzvos is in response to the observance of the mitzvos by the Jewish people, as reflected in our Sages' statement:8 "Whenever a person studies the Torah, the Holy One, blessed be He, studies opposite him."

Of course, the fact that our deeds prompt G‑d to perform the mitzvos is no indication that we are independently capable of causing G‑d to act. Rather, the causation is possible only because G‑d desires that our deeds influence Him, so to speak.

This requires explanation: Why does G‑d want the Divine service of mere mortals to exert influence in the spiritual realms? The first phase of the dynamic that His observance of the mitzvos brings about our observance can be understood; His deeds generate the power needed for us to act. But what is the explanation for the second phase that our observance prompts His?

Before going any further, a basic question must be answered: Why is Divine service necessary at all? Let G‑d give us everything as a reflection of His beneficence! We are taught that the world was created because of the Divine initiative "to act benevolently to His created beings."9 Since G‑d is the ultimate good, and "it is the nature of the benevolent to act kindly,"10 why shouldn't He grant His creations everything they need without demanding anything in return?

In response, Chassidus explains that the ultimate expression of kindness is to have the recipient earn the good which he receives. A gift dispensed gratis, without the recipient having to exert himself, is regarded as "bread of shame."11 G‑d desires to give the Jews the ultimate good. Therefore He structured the world in such a manner that they earn Divine influence.

On this basis, we can appreciate why the Jews' Divine service creates repercussions in the spiritual realms. Were a person to receive payment for work which did not benefit his employer, the payment is still tainted. For when the recipient knows that the work for which he is being paid is of no consequence, he feels that he does not deserve any reward; he has not truly earned it.

For this reason, G‑d structured existence in such a way that the Divine service of the Jewish people has an effect in the spiritual realms, bringing about a spiritual equivalent to the actions performed on earth. Therefore the reward a Jew receives is not "bread of shame," but payment received for doing something of value to his Employer.12

When There is No Grain to Cut

There is another dimension to the above concept: When a task is not productive, a worker will not derive any satisfaction from his labor even if he is amply rewarded. He will work, but without energy or pleasure. The task will become burdensome, "backbreaking toil."13

My revered father-in-law, the Rebbe, illustrated this concept with an analogy.14 A landowner once called a peasant and asked him to work for him. The peasant would "harvest" grain, but instead of swinging his sickle in the field, he would swing it in the landlord's drawing room. The landowner promised to pay generously for this "work."

At first, the peasant eagerly agreed, but he soon begged to be relieved, explaining that he had nothing to show for his work.

Similarly, in the analogue, when a Jew knows that his Divine service evokes a similar response in the spiritual realms, this knowledge infuses his efforts with energy and satisfaction, giving him the power to overcome the challenges posed by the evil inclination.15 For he senses that his Divine service affects the very essence of G‑d, as it were.

Taking G‑d as a Partner

All the Divine influence felt in this world depends on the efforts of the Jewish people. Every mitzvah has a unique influence, for the expression of a particular mitzvah in the spiritual realms is dependent on the performance of that mitzvah by the Jewish people. Moreover, in a more general sense, the very fact that the Divine service of the Jewish people has an effect in the spiritual realms is also a function of that Divine service, and is reflected in the mitzvah prohibiting interest.

What is interest? Receiving profit for lending money, i.e., the lender receives profit because the money lent once belonged to him. By giving the borrower money, the lender enables him to do business, and that is considered reason enough for the borrower to pay interest.

Thus observing the prohibition against interest means taking profit only from one's present possessions. This is the dynamic underlying a heter iska, which allows one to receive a certain return from the money one invests. In a heter iska, a certain portion of the money that changes hands remains the lender's; it is merely entrusted to the borrower. So when the borrower does business with the funds, he is also doing business with the share belonging to the lender, and the profit the lender receives is thus earned by the money which actually belongs to him. Similar principles apply with regard to the renting of animals or utensils.

The relationship between one Jew and his colleague is mirrored in the relationship he shares with the spiritual realms. If he transgresses the prohibition against interest, i.e., if he takes profit for resources only because they were once his, a similar pattern is followed in the spiritual realms. There is no active investment from above in his Divine service.16 He is given resources, i.e., the mitzvos are performed in the spiritual realms before he begins his Divine service, endowing him with power, but he is given no more than that.

When, by contrast, a person observes the prohibition against interest, G‑d invests in him. Not only does He endow the person with potential before he begins his Divine service, but G‑d remains an active partner. "The Holy One, blessed be He, studies opposite him."

On this basis, we can appreciate the connection between the prohibition against interest, the acceptance of the yoke of heaven, and the exodus from Egypt. The prohibition against interest is of all-embracing significance,17 reflecting the active partnership of G‑d in one's Divine service, an expression of the acceptance of G‑d's yoke. And by establishing such a connection with G‑d, a person transcends all limitations the spiritual counterpart of the exodus from Egypt.

"The Righteous Resemble Their Creator"Bamidbar Rabbah 10:5.

As explained, G‑d does not remain content with providing a Jew with the energy needed to observe the Torah and its mitzvos at the outset, but remains an active partner at the time the Jews observe the mitzvos, performing the same mitzvos as they perform. This pattern is also displayed by the righteous, and in particular by the Nesi'im of the Jewish people, who help connect the nation to G‑d.19 Not only do they empower their emissaries to carry out the missions with which they are charged, but they engage in the same tasks themselves.

This approach was especially apparent in the case of my revered father-in-law, the Rebbe. Not only did he send out emissaries and empower them to strengthen Jewish observance in general, and spread the wellsprings of chassidus in particular, he remained an active partner, dedicating himself to this work. And this applied not only in his earlier years, but in his later years, when he had disciples and disciples of disciples who were equipped to perform these tasks.

This serves as a lesson to all those who are bound to him, and who follow in his footsteps. They should not remain satisfied with the fact that they have raised students who are involved with spreading Torah and Chassidus. They should not excuse themselves by calculating that, since the work being carried out by their students is a result of their influence, they are entitled to the additional light generated by their students' efforts. If this is their attitude, they might feel that they need not continue to involve themselves with others, and will instead spend their time studying Torah themselves.

Receiving "profit" (additional spiritual light) for one's previous efforts in this way smacks of taking interest. Instead, a person must be ready to both work on himself and involve himself with others continually. He must himself perform the labor which he demands from his students.

The reward which we will receive from foregoing such "spiritual interest" will be that my revered father-in-law, the Rebbe, will continue to invest himself in our efforts. And through him for he "stands between G‑d and yourselves"20 is drawn down G‑d's active participation, the acceptance of the yoke of heaven. This in turn will lead to an exodus from Egypt, a sundering of all the limitations which we face.

(Adapted from Sichos Behar-Bechukosai, 5710)