‘When you will lend money’
TorahParshat Mishpatim

‘When you will lend money’

Exodus 21:1-24:18

This week’s parsha is Parshat Mishpatim, or is it?

Our reading this week is a dense rendering of many of the fundamental mitzvot that form the basis for a functioning and just Jewish society. We read at length about the court proceedings of torts law, the responsibilities of custodian watchmen, the importance and nature of justice among many other laws. Fittingly, we call this reading Parshat Mishpatim, the Readings of the Laws.

However, there is an alternative practice recorded in the Sefer HaChinuch, which was published anonymously in Spain in the 13th century. That book divides the 613 commandments into their respective parshiot. In the middle of the many laws we read this week, the author begins a new parsha with a new title. That parsha, called “Im kesef,” is named for the first mitzvah in that section, which is the mitzvah to lend money to those in need. The literal meaning of the name is “When you will lend money.” The author here is reflecting the contemporary practice of his
community of Barcelona, which split this week’s reading in two. This practice, or minhag, to split the parshiot in this way is still maintained by some communities of North African origin.

What is so interesting about this practice that has mostly disappeared over the past centuries is that it highlights an often unnoticed aspect of the rules and laws, which we will read this Shabbat. The alternate start and the name of a brand-new parsha is not arbitrary, just another verse in another chapter, because it needs to start somewhere. This verse and this mitzvah were chosen for their own reading in the yearly cycle because it forms a counterbalance to the numerous and detailed rules of a legal society, like those listed above. Aside from protecting the poor, protecting boundaries and promoting justice, there is a positive, actionable value of caring for people before they fall, proactively seeking to provide for their needs and foster their rebuilding. This is the commandment to giving loans.

The centrality of this commandment and its fulfillment throughout the generations can be seen by Googling “Free Loan Society” or the Hebrew equivalent, “Gemach.” You will find a multitude of contemporary Jewish organizations that lend millions of dollars a year around the United States to people in need, exactly as the Torah prescribes. It does not stop with large organizations.

When I was a post-high school student in Israel, the majority of our needs were handled by the Yeshiva where we studied, but we took with us a few hundred dollars in cash to fund whatever ancillary costs we had. Invariably, we misspent and ran out of money before returning to America for Pesach and replenishing. So, we went to Shragy. Even if you did not know him well, Shragy would lend you a few hundred shekel to be repaid after Pesach, no questions asked. He had a tiny notebook that he used as a ledger, and everyone was considered to have good credit, exactly as we read in the second section of our parsha. Kindness is paired with justice, and in the practice of the Sefer HaChinuch, they are each given a proper place. PJC

Rabbi Yitzi Genack is the rabbi of Shaare Torah Congregation. This column is a service of the Vaad Harabanim of Greater Pittsburgh.

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