A Topic of Interest by Rabbi Steven Finkelstein


A well-known Jewish educator once commented that in order to understand teenagers, one must look at the world from the perspective that things are never fair. This is often as true in the classroom as it is at home. Each Pasuk, Mitzvah, and concept needs to be explained and a teacher needs to be prepared for the follow-up questions. But how could this be fair? It just doesn’t seem right. There are some Mitzvot that attract these questions more than others. One of them is found in this week’s Parashah: “Et Kaspecha Lo Titein Lo BeNeshech UVemarbit Lo Titein Ochelecha. Ani Hashem Elokeichem Asher Hotzeiti Etchem MeiEretz Mitzrayim Latet Lachem Et Eretz Kena’an Lihyot Lachem LeiLokim,” “You should not give him your money upon interest, nor give him your food for increase. I am Hashem your God, Who brought you forth out of the land of Egypt, to give you the land of Kena’an, to be your God” (VaYikra, 25:37-38). Essentially, we are prohibited from charging interest when we loan money to other Jews.

This just doesn’t seem right. Why is the Torah getting involved in our business dealings? Don’t we believe that all business transactions are fair as long as the parties agree? If the borrower agrees to pay interest it should be perfectly acceptable. There are many explanations that can help us understand the answers to these questions, but I will focus on an innovative comment by the Kli Yakar.

The Kli Yakar (VaYikra 25:36 s.v. Al Tikach MeIto Neshech VeTarbit) explains, in general there is a certain risk factor in business transactions. Like a farmer, a white-collar worker does his best in terms of planning and research. He makes his best efforts, but there is almost always an element of risk. It is this risk factor that causes the average businessman to acknowledge that some things are beyond his control. He understands that the outcome of his venture is in the hands of God. He then turns his eyes heavenward in the hopes that Hashem will enable his plans to succeed.

When it comes to charging interest, the loaner is creating a situation where there is no risk. He will charge interest, and to ensure that he will not lose money; he will take collateral while he waits to collect payment. Without the risk and the fear of losing money, this loaner has denied himself the opportunity to recognize that it is God who controls his financial success or failure. Without the risk, there is no clear need to cry out to Hashem. He will miss out on the strong feelings of gratitude to Hashem when things work out favorably.

The Kli Yakar is teaching us that the Torah hopes to create a situation in which every business transaction provides us with the opportunity for spiritual growth. It gives us a chance to deepen our connection to Hashem.

Following this approach, it becomes clear why the recipient of the loan is forbidden to waive off the Torah’s concerns and agree to pay the interest. If charging interest were a sin which causes the loaner to become distanced spiritually from Hashem, then the person who agrees to pay the interest would actually be causing harm to this loaner by depriving him the risk necessary to generate his reflections on his dependence on Hashem.

This approach is unique among the many interpretations given, as it focuses on the one giving a loan rather than the recipient of the loan. The Kli Yakar forces us to view this law from the perspective of how detrimental it will be to the one offering the loan, and thus also reminds us that within all of our daily activities there are always opportunities to see the hand of Hashem.

We can learn from this approach that regardless of what we are working on in life—be it family, health, business or school work—it is in our own best interest to actively seek out opportunities that force us to recognize and acknowledge that we are dependent on Hashem for all of our achievements.

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