Ever hear someone argue that just being a good person is Jewish enough? By that argument, the myriad laws, the extensive rituals, to wit the Torah, are superfluous if you behave as a good person. I doubt if that view is sufficient. Torah offers some inspiring insights into the way we live our days. Our tradition provides holy provocation toward best behaviors. This week’s Torah reading offers a great example of what it means to be a good person in the context of a business transaction. Join me as I marvel at Torah in its’ sophisticated and specific consideration of the relationship between a creditor and borrower. Or just lend me an ear.
Perhaps you recall a time when you were asked for a loan by a relative or friend. You might have viewed that request as potentially damaging of a relationship. The danger of changed relationship due to economic advantage brings to mind the warning from Hamlet, “neither a borrower nor a lender be.” Or the old proverb, "Before borrowing money from a friend, decide which you need most." But the Torah reading this week takes a different approach. Torah wants you to be a lender and to enhance your relationship at the same time. That’s how we bring God into a business transaction.
Leviticus 25:35 says this: “when your kinsman is beaten down and comes under your authority, you hold him up, not as a stranger, but as the resident who lives by your side.” In context of the verses following, we learn that Torah is describing a person who is in dire economic straits and turns to you for help or a loan. Torah’s first concern in the area of such economic transactions is to focus on relationship. For example, if you are a lender you gain an economic advantage over another person. Torah admonishes, when you have an economic advantage over another person don’t treat that person like a stranger.
If you have hesitated when a friend or relative has asked to borrow money from you Torah says not only should you be a lender, but you should also make the extra effort to support that same person in other ways. Don’t avoid the relationship just because you have become a creditor. Don’t treat the borrower like a stranger. In fact, our tradition says, hold them up. Invite them over for a meal. Take them to the ballpark. Keep the mah jong game going.
An even broader read of this verse teaches that if you do transact business with a person who is in a weaker economic position, you should treat them as kindly as you would a neighbor. That’s how we bring God into commercial transactions.
The lesson is broader than just being kind to a person who needs your financial assistance. The lesson is to maintain Godliness even in the context of commercial transactions. I remember the scene in the Godfather when Michael Corleone says “it’s strictly business.” In Judaism, it is never “strictly business.”
R’ Evan J. Krame