There is a negative commandment (i.e. thou shalt not) in this week’s Torah portion of Behar regarding the charging of interest when loaning money to ones fellow Jew. The Torah states (Vayikra 25:35-38): “If your brother becomes impoverished and his means falter in your proximity, you shall strengthen him, convert, or resident, so that he can live with you. Do not take from him interest and increase; you shall fear your G-D, and let your brother live with you. Do not give him money for interest, and do not give your food for increase. I am Hashem, your G-D, Who took you out of the land of Egypt, to give you the land of Canaan, to be G-D unto you.”
The Sforno sheds some light on this mitzvah. There is a mitzvah to support your brethren in need however the proper way (or, literally, the nice way) to support him is to lend him money without interest. Yet the Torah only requires one to loan his fellow money if the lender has sufficient means to support himself, as the Rabbis taught (Bava Metzia 62a): “Your life takes precedence over the life of your friend.” (Click here fore Hebrew text.)
The Sforno concludes his explanation of the verses by saying that Hashem’s intended purpose should be attained by all, and therefore it is proper that everyone organizes their social and political lives in such a manner that everyone can live together and assist each other so as to fulfill G-D’s will. (Click here fore Hebrew text.)
On the one hand a person has a phenomenal opportunity to support or even save a Jew, a holy and precious soul in need of some financial assistance. On the other hand if the loan comes at the cost of putting ones self into debt or dangerous financial straits that is forbidden to do, because the Torah mandates that ones own life comes before anyone else’s. However this does not mean that one can profit when lending money, which would not be a nice thing to do for the individual in need.
What is perplexing, however, is that the Torah emphasizes that it is worth lending money without interest for sake of bettering society. If one were to think about it, society runs on the principle of interest, with the very existence of banks (and thereby mortgages, businesses, etc.) depending on interest. So how can society be a better place without charging interest?
We see from here how sensitive we must be, not only towards the needs of others but also towards the feelings of others; especially of one who is in need. It was important enough to create a negative commandment in the Torah, just due to the fact that what you are doing is not nice towards the individual. It will make him feel bad when he knows he has to pay back the loan plus interest.
This sensitivity to an individual is so important that it changes the way society must operate. Granted, it is true one must take care of his own need before anyone else’s, but there must be a balance. When one is able to help another, that does not mean he or she has the right to profit off of that act – because it will make the borrower feel bad. And don’t worry about the banks and the credit card companies – if the proper thing to do is to be sensitive to the feelings and welfare of the individual, then people have the ability to set up systems of business to take care of those needs.
The world would then be a much better place; everyone could get along if people would just focus on the individual, feelings and all.