Behar-Bechukotai: Usury and the Land of Israel

This week's article is by Rabbi Jake Vidomlanski, former Shaliach in Cleveland (1998-1999), currently Director of Shana Bet program at Yeshivat Lev HaTorahand Sgan Rosh Moshava IO.

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In the context of the prohibition of usury the Torah inexplicably closes the prohibition with the words “I am Hashem your God Who took you out of the land of Egypt to give you the land of Canaan…(25:38)”. This pasuk is striking due to the fact that there is seemingly no connection between the prohibition of usury and the land of Israel. Ultimately, the prohibition is as relevant outside of Israel as it is in Israel. Why then, would the Torah link the two?

The Mahara”l (נתיב הצדקה פרק ו') elucidates the juxtaposition of these seemingly unconnected topics by first explaining the significance of the obligation to lend money and the prohibition of usury. Hashem is one. As such, Hashem’s creation of the world is designed to reflect that fact. Thus nature is harmonious. The Midrash writes (Shmot rabba 31:15) “The day borrows from the night and the night borrows from the day, the moon borrows from the stars and the stars borrow from the moon…”  Depending on the time of year sometimes the day is longer (“borrowing” from the night) sometimes the night (“borrowing” from the day). Depending on the time in the lunar cycle, sometimes the stars shine (“borrowing from the moon) sometimes the moon shines (“borrowing” from the stars). This interplay of “borrowing” from each other is reflective of nature’s harmony and singularity. If nature was disjointed, fragmented, and disorderly it would provide heretics room to err and assume more than a singular creator.

Within the Jewish people as well, the enterprise of borrowing demonstrates we are unified. This unification is particularly significant as we are the Almighty’s nation.  If we would be a scrappy people it would provide an opening to wrongfully assume that God is not a singular entity. Thus there is an obligation to lend our fellow Jew money, to give expression to our being a united people. Usury would undermine our unity for it turns money lending into a profit-making initiative. Rather than being rooted in a sense of harmonious community, lending money would cause a schism and divide between us. 

It is for this reason that Eretz Yisrael is alluded to in the context of the prohibition of usury. The obligation of lending money is meant to reveal our being one entity. But only in Eretz Yisrael are we truly united. The proof, says the Mahara”l, is the fact that while in the desert Bnei Yisrael were not yet culpable for each other’s sins, there was no Areivut (mutual responsibility). Only once they entered into the land did Bnei Yisrael become one.  Being that the prohibition of usury displays our being a united people and that the full connection did not begin until we entered the land of Israel, the land of Israel in mentioned in the context of the prohibition of usury.

Yehi ratzon that we will merit to be united in the truest sense of the word in Eretz Yisrael B’mheira B’yameinu.