Archive for the '2.06 Mishpatim' Category



Microloans

Note: I am sure that I am missing some basics in economics. I am a Rabbi and not an economist.       Please feel free to comment.

The Great Recession (also referred to as the global recession of 2009) is a marked global economic decline that began in December 2007 and took a particularly sharp downward turn in September 2008. The active phase of the crisis, which manifested as the bursting of the U.S. housing bubble, which peaked in 2006,caused the values of securities tied to U.S. real estate pricing to plummet, damaging financial institutions globally. Some economists have claimed that the origin of the financial crisis of 2007–2010 can be traced back to an extremely indebted US economy. High private debt levels also impact growth by making recessions deeper and the following recovery weaker. We are still working our way out of this situation.

It was hard not thinking about all of this when reading about the biblical institution of loans in Mishpatim, this week’s Torah portion. There we read:

24 If you lend money to any of My people, even to the poor with you, you shall not be to him as a creditor; neither shall you lay upon him interest. 25 If you at all take your neighbor’s garment to pledge, you shall restore it to him by that the sun goes down; 26 for that is his only covering, it is his garment for his skin; wherein shall he sleep? and it shall come to pass, when he cries to Me, that I will hear; for I am gracious. ( Exodus 22:24-26)

Who can we charge interest? Who can we not charge interest? Being part of Klal Yisrael  is not just the idea of Jewish people, but also a realization of the corporation of Israel. But seeing usury only in terms of belonging to a specific group is missing some of the lessons the Torah has to teach us about the institution of loans.  It is interesting to note the size of standard loans. The pledge needed to secure a loan was only a shirt, but if it was excessive (as the shirt off their back) it was limited by the law . There is clearly a lesson in here of God’s compassion for the needy and maybe also for society at large.

Our Torah portion is resonant with today’s microfinance world. These microloans are made to impoverished borrowers who typically lack collateral, steady employment and a verifiable credit history. It is designed not only to support entrepreneurship and alleviate poverty, but also in many cases to empower women and uplift entire communities by extension. In many communities worldwide, in developed and developing nations alike, women lack the highly stable employment histories that traditional lenders tend to require. This reality might result from factors such as leaving the paid workforce to care for children and elderly relatives. As of 2009 an estimated 74 million men and women held microloans that totaled US$38 billion. Grameen Bank reports that repayment success rates are between 95 and 98 percent.

At the core giving a loan is trusting another person to pay you back. Giving someone a hand to help him/herself is more important than just a hand out. But we need to be sure to take loans that we can pay back or we put our whole system in jeopardy. On an interpersonal and collective level giving small loans might not just be doing good, but also doing well.

– This was inspired by my old friend Saul Korin

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Ultimate Freedom

In parshat Mishpatim, this week’s Torah portion, we read a whole litany of rules dealing with slavery. For a group of people who had just been liberated from bondage it is hard to imagine that there would be any sanction for this behavior. How could we ever put a price on another human being? And if we are looking to make Torah relevant today the idea of slavery seems even more absurd. In our age, a time in which we are hell-bent on the idea of personal autonomy and individuality, the idea of owning another person seems totally absurd.

In his Sh”ut Memaamikeem, Responsa of the Holocaust, Rabbi Efrayim Oshry deals with a very interesting question (III: 6). How can a Jew who is subjugated to forced labor in the ghetto say the morning blessing thanking God for not making him/her a slave? Rabbi Oshry responded that despite the fact that the person was actually enslaved physically, according to the Avudraham, the original idea behind the blessing was that we should thank God for not making us spiritual slaves to idolatry. The Torah’s ideal is to be free. Freedom in the Torah is not independence, rather it is recognition of ultimate dependence. Relying on anything other than God would be idolatrous. Rabbi Oshry encouraged the person to continue to say the blessing as testimony of real freedom. In saying the blessing, the slave became liberated.

In our lives it is hard to imagine that we are physically enslaved. But, with so many things making a claim on our time, it is hard to imagine that we are truly the masters of our own time. While we abhor slavery, it seems that we have actually put a price on our own persons.  What are we working for? Are we  selling ourselves short? So stay up late, make more time in your life,  and talk about these questions with people you respect. Who knows? You might even find these conversations redeeming.

Stranger in a Strange Land

In Mishpatim, this week’s Torah portion we read:

And a stranger you shall not oppress; for you know the heart of a stranger, seeing you were strangers in the land of Egypt.  And six years you shall sow your land, and gather in the increase thereof; but the seventh year you shall let it rest and lie fallow, that the poor of your people may eat; and what they leave the beast of the field shall eat. In like manner you shall deal with thy vineyard, and with thy olive yard. (Exodus 23:9-11)

What is the connection between being nice to the stranger and keeping the laws of shmittah, letting the fields go fallow on the seventh year?

On the surface, it seems that every seven years we create a welfare state, which provides for the less fortunate. However, on a deeper level we see that the laws of shmittah maintain a feeling of never owning the land. Cycling through this seven-year process, helps us stay in touch with the experience of our own being strangers. Surely, it is wonderful to feel at home. But, in the words of Rabbi Levi Lauer, “Comfort is not a Jewish value.” The experience of alienation once every seven years is supposed to inculcate us with the need to look out for the dispossessed for the following six years. We can never let our experience of comfort overshadow our compassion for the stranger.

It has been 30- years since U2 released “Stranger in a Strange Land” on their album October. The song starts off:

Stranger, stranger in a strange land
He looked at me like I was the one who should run
We asked him to smile for a photograph
Waited a while to see if we could make him laugh

Often we see others as if they are strangers, when in reality it is us ourselves who are the strangers. It seems at its core we have been singing this song for centuries. 

– And I wish you were here

Dirty Responsibility

In this week’s Torah portion, Mishpatim, we read of many commandments. The list includes owning slaves, manslaughter, property law, loans, the Sabbath, and the holidays. At the end of this long list of things to do and not do, we read, “He (Moses) took the Book of the Covenant and read it in earshot of the people, and they said, ‘Everything that God has said, we will do and we will understand!’ Moses took the blood and threw it upon the people…” (Exodus 24:7-8). I find this image to be striking. On one level, I am taken in by the national devotion to this newly minted law. The image all of them taking upon themselves this body of law is just awe-inspiring. I have to admit that my memory of this moment seems to be a bit cleaner then the Torah records. What is the story with all of this blood?

An answer that I wanted to share this week is connected to the beginning of the portion. The first commandment in the litany is, “If you buy a Jewish bondsman…” (Exodus 21:2). How could it be that they were just released from the bonds of slavery and they are now given a law about subjugating our brethren to slavery? I think the image of their receiving the Torah covered in blood and the regression of former slaves now taking slaves comes into focus through the lens of the story of Joseph and his brothers.

Originally, Joseph’s brothers wanted to kill their little brother. Instead, they sell him into slavery. We read that, “They took Joseph’s tunic, slaughtered a young goat, and dipped the tunic in the blood.”(Genesis 37:31) The brothers did not want to kill him and have his blood on their hands. Reuben said to them, “Shed no blood! Throw him into this pit in the wilderness, but lay no hand on him!” (Genesis 37: 22).

In the case of Joseph’s brothers, we all can understand their jealousy. In our portion, we understand the slaves’ desires to be masters. In our lives, we understand that there is an underclass. But, we cannot confuse this understanding for an excuse. We know that we need laws for when we do not act well. The law might not be the ideal; it might just try to curb of our base desires. This is not enough; we need to strive for more. We are all mutually responsible for each other however; this social contract can get a bit messy at moments.  It rests upon our taking responsibility for our actions as a society. There cannot be a scapegoat; Joseph’s blood is on our hands. We all accept the law for all of us and we all accept responsibility for that marginalized person. If it is to be, it starts with me. And yes I might need to get my hands dirty.


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