By Rabbi Pinchas Winston
Behar: Of Interest to Us All
If your brother becomes poor and loses the ability to support himself, then
you must help him, whether he is a convert, or a foreigner, so that he may
live amongst you. Do not charge him advance interest, or give him food for
which he will have to pay accrued interest. I am Hashem, your G-d, who
brought you out of the land of Egypt, to give you the land of Canaan, and
to be your G-d. (Vayikra 25:35-38)
We've discussed the mitzvah to lend money interest-free before. Even though
making money on money is extremely acceptable in Western Society, the Torah
is against, at least when it when it comes to the Jewish people. And, even
though there are acceptable halachic "loopholes" which one can use to lend
to another with "interest" (i.e.,"heter iska"), still, many in the Orthodox
community do lend interest-free.
The details of the laws of interest are numerous and complex, especially
when one takes into account the rabbinical prohibitions as well. Many have
created situations that are forbidden by either the Torah itself, or
rabbinically, without even knowing it. It is always worthwhile to ask a
competent halachic authority if there is even the slightest doubt or
concern. In fact, for those who are ignorant of the laws of interest, there
are excellent books (in English as well) on the topic; such people should
make a point of speaking to a rabbi about their business dealings if they
involve other Jews.
With regard to the topic of interest, the Talmud says the following:
Why does the Torah mention the going out of Egypt in the section dealing
with interest, in the section of tzitzis, and in the section of weights?
The Holy One, Blessed is He says, "I am He who in Egypt distinguished
between the seed of the firstborn and the seed of the non-firstborn. In the
Time-to-Come, I will repay the one who lends to a fellow Jew with interest,
claiming that it is money that belongs to a non-Jew, the one who hides salt
in his weights, and the one who uses kala d'ilan in his clothing." (Bava
In each of the three cases mentioned, a person has pretended to do the
mitzvah, but, in fact, has done a sin. The lender took interest for money
he lent to another, and pretended he was only acting on behalf of a
non-Jew. The merchant used scales that appeared to be fair, but, in fact,
were in his favor. The last person used a dye similar to the one specified
by the Torah for tzitzis (techeles)--perhaps because it was less
expensive--and was satisfied with his version of the mitzvah.
However, common to all three cases is that each acted as if he could pull
the wool over G-d's eyes too, and hide the truth. However, you may be able
to fool some of the people some of the time, but G-d, you can fool none of
the time. This is what the Talmud is warning: if G-d could tell who was a
firstborn in Egypt--even though, as Rashi points out, the Egyptians engaged
in adultery and had many firstborns from different husbands--then, He can
certainly see past a lie, into hollow weights, and through false dyes.
The only question is, why does the Talmud single out these three mitzvos?
There are so many others that present an opportunity to deceive others,
ourselves, and tempt us to try and fool G-d as well.
One answer is, each is one's effort to increase his livelihood at the cost
of another's. This is clear in the case of lending with interest, and when
using false weights. However, how is this the case when using false dyes to
prepare the techeles-tzitzis commanded by the Torah? To answer this
question, we have the following:
Zevulun said before The Holy One, Blessed is He, "Master of the World! To
my brothers You gave fields and vineyards, but to me You gave mountains and
hills. To my brothers You gave land, but to me You gave seas and rivers."
He answered him, "All of them will need you because of the Chalazon ..."
"The Chalazon goes up from the waters to the mountains, and they use its
blood for techeles and sell it for a lot of money." (Rashi)
As Rashi explains, it was from the blood of the Chalazon fish (according to
others, a snail) that the precious techeles (blue-purple) dye necessary for
the mitzvah of tzitzis came. Zevulun's questions really was, "How can we
earn a living if we don't possess fertile land?" To which G-d answered,
"Your livelihood will be from the important and valuable Chalazon blood."
Therefore, the techeles also represents G-d's sense of fair play and His
desire to take care of the needs of His creations.
Hence, when one cheats to get ahead financially, he is displaying a lack of
belief in G-d's desire and ability to take care of his needs. And when he
does so by denying someone else his bounty and blessing, he is compounding
his sin by thinking that he can fool the other person and G-d too. But, as
the rabbis teach elsewhere, and experience proves: money that does not
belong to us will not stay with us. And those who lose out but are not
meant to lose out will, once again, regain what they lost. And when the
dust settles, as is always the case in G-d's world, justice will have been
Parashas Bechukosai: Blessings, Curses, and Rectification
If you walk in My laws and keep My commandments, and do them, then I will
give you the rain in its season, and the land will yield its produce ...
However, if you will not listen to Me, and do all of these commandments; if
you will deride My laws, and detest My judgments and not do all My
commandments, but void My covenant, then I will do the following to you: I
will cause you insecurity, skin disease, and a fever that will destroy ...
Here we are again. In less than a year since we were warned in Parashas Ki
Savo about straying from the path of Torah, we are back again at Parashas
Bechukosai, and its own famous and frightening rendition of blessings and
We have, in the past, discussed how what appears in This World to be
reward-and-punishment is really cause-and-effect. Reward and punishment,
for the most part, is saved for after this period of history comes to a
close. Rather, this is a world of tikun, that is, rectification. We are
here to avoid making moral mistakes, and to take corrective measures when
In other words, we are just "passing through," so-to-speak, on our way to a
bigger, better, and eternal world called, the "World-to-Come." What's six
thousand years of history compared to Eternity! Huh! It's a drop in the
bucket, isn't it?
Time-wise, perhaps. However, This World counts for everything, since it is
in This World that we earn our position in the World-to-Come. This World
may only be a "corridor" to the "Banquet Hall" to come, but it is here, in
the "corridor," that we earn the right to enter the "Main Event" in the
Since this is the case, then, we have to complete the work of spiritual
self-perfection before we leave This World, at least as much as is possible
to do so in all of our lifetimes (that's right: lifetimes--plural). We need
free-will choice to accomplish that, the chance to make mistakes, and a
"corrective device" to bring us back on track again should we stray too far
Enter the blessings and curses. For example, the Talmud states:
Rav Yitzchak said: There is no punishment that comes to the world that does
not have one-twenty-fourth of it from the sin of the first calf ...
Why? Because before the Children of Israel allowed the golden calf to be
constructed and worshipped, and after they accepted Torah, they had risen
to the level of Adam before his sin. That represented a tremendous
rectification, not just to the Jewish people, but for all of creation, and
eventually, all of mankind.
However, their own transgression in the desert at the foot of the mountain
plunged mankind back again to the level mortality and fallibility. Thus,
the sin of the golden calf created an ongoing need once again for tikun,
which is behind all "punishment" affecting the Jewish people, until
Moshiach finally comes and heralds the final part of the Final Tikun.
What the parshah is reminding us of is that, the more we effect our own
tikun, the less G-d has to impose tikun upon us. It is a blessing when we
wake up to the reality of the need for tikun, and initiate rectification on
our own. It is a curse when we assume that life is perfect enough as it is,
and need to have tikun initiated from On High.
If you walk in My laws and keep My commandments ... However, if you will
not listen to Me, and do all of these commandments ... (Vayikra 26:315)
Come and see how The Holy One, Blessed is He, is not like flesh-and-blood:
The Holy One, Blessed is He, blessed them with twenty-two and cursed them
with eight. He blessed them with twenty-two, from "If you walk in My laws
..." until "... make you upright." He cursed them with eight, from "And if
your despise My laws ..." until "... your soul will loathe My judgments
..." Moshe Rabbeinu, however, blessed them with eight and cursed them with
twenty-two ... (Bava Basra 88b)
It is not quite clear what the Talmud means by this statement, so Rashi
"The Holy One, Blessed is He, is merciful and therefore His blessings are
more than His curses; but with man, the curses are more than the
It is also not clear from the Talmud what it means by referring to
twenty-two blessings, so Rashi explains that too:
"From the aleph of 'if' until the tav of 'upright' there are twenty-two
letters of the aleph-bais ... and from the vav until the mem there are
eight letters." (Rashi)
Talk about fancy foot-work! Talk about going out of your way to make a
point! From Rashi's explanation, it seems as if the Talmud arbitrarily
chose these amounts of letters just to make some kind of comparison between
the blessings and curses of G-d, and those of Moshe Rabbeinu. And, other
than the fact these letters can be found within these words, they seem to
have very little to do with the number of blessings and curses!
The Maharal has a more straightforward approach (Chidushei Aggados). The
Maharal actually shows how there are in fact twenty-two blessings in all
the verses of the section dealing with the blessings, and then does the
same for the curses, grouping many together and calling them a single curse
to come to a total of eight all together. The only problem is that the
Maharal's explanation does not seem to fit the words of the Talmud, because
the allusion to the eight curses is supposed to be in a single verse.
The Maharshah seems to say that the Talmud is using this as a device to
teach a specific point. One can obviously assemble far more words and
blessings from all twenty-two letters of the aleph-bais than one can
assemble curses from the eight letters of the aleph-bais found between the
letter vav and the letter mem. Thus, even though there are very few
blessings found in this week's parshah, they are all-inclusive, general
blessings that incorporate so much more than meets the eye--everything from
aleph to tav--and too numerous to recount in writing, as if to say, "these,
and so many more."
However, all the curses that are found in this week's parshah are all the
curses that will be befall the Jewish people, and not one more. When it
came to the curses, G-d limited Himself, so-to-speak, out of love for the
Jewish people and to guarantee our survival. They specified here, to
indicate the full extent of the curses, as if to say "these, and no more."
But then again, when you're G-d, you can afford to make that calculation,
for you know past, present, and future, and precisely what it takes to keep
the Jewish people on track. Moshe Rabbeinu, a human being, and one who
needed to impress upon the Jewish people the danger of straying, went light
on the blessings and heavy on the curses.
... They will admit their mistakes and those of their ancestors, evil
performed against Me, and that they walked contrary to Me, [and that it was
for this reason] that I worked against them and brought them into the land
of their enemies; if then they humble their hearts, if then they accept the
punishment for their wrongdoings, then I will remember My covenant with
Ya'akov, My covenant with Yitzchak, and My covenant with Avraham. (Vayikra
They will? Who is the "they" of this verse? There are over twelve million
Jews today (bli ayin hara), and many of them--the vast majority--seem a
hard sale with respect to Torah, mitzvos, and Divine Providence. How will
so many admit to so much so soon?
First of all, we are reminded of the Midrash that says that, in Egypt, at
the time of that redemption, four-fifths of the Jewish population died in
the plague of darkness--some twelve million Jews all together according to
most accounts. According to tradition, they died because they didn't accept
the fact that the redemption was at hand, and that Moshe was, in fact,
their redeemer. So, maybe the "they" doesn't include everyone--a
frightening, and hopefully mistaken thought.
A better answer might come from understanding the verse differently.
Though, it appears from the verse that G-d will not become involved in the
redemption of the Jewish people until after they have repented completely,
the truth is, that is only in an obvious way. It does not mean that G-d
will not already be working "behind the scenes" to bring about national
How? The verse itself says that, as time goes on, the Jewish people will
come to realize that all their problems are not the result of bad luck, but
rather, as a result of direct Divine Providence. As Rashi says elsewhere,
hester panim (hiding of G-d's "face") and exile are really the results of a
Divine Providence that "hides" the connection between cause and effect,
giving the impression of randomness in daily life and history as a whole.
Therefore, to be able to relate to Divine Providence, and see beyond the
illusion of randomness, cause and effect must become reconnected in our
minds. We will have to be able to see that the trouble and suffering of the
Jewish nation is directly related to our decisions and attitudes toward
Torah-Judaism. We will have to see, understand, and accept, that all that
occurs in our lives is really part of an ongoing dialogue with G-d, who,
like a loving parent, works to bring us back on track.
The L-rd may work in mysterious ways, but that is only when He wishes to
remain hidden in history. The "mystery" of G-d's ways are the result of the
need to hide His Providence. However, when G-d wishes to make Himself
known, because the time for the redemption has come, then He creates
situations that are too "coincidental" to be coincidence, scenarios that
scream out, "Attention everyone! This is G-d speaking: It would be wise to
do teshuvah, NOW!"
There is a quote I read years ago, and which I often use in a different
context, but it suits this idea as well. It goes as follows:
"In short, the works of modern science, taken one by one, seem enough to
dampen a person's hope for higher meaning. If religion's stock-in-trade is
the inexplicable, the coming years don't look like boon times. This is half
of the giant paradox, and it's one reason why the average scientist today
is probably less religious than the average scientist of 50 or 100 years
ago. The other half of the paradox comes from stepping back and looking at
the big picture: an overarching pattern that encompasses the many feats of
20th century science and transcends them; a pattern suggesting, to some
scientists, at least, that there is more to the universe than meets the
eye, something authentically divine about how it all fits together." (What
Does Science Teach Us About G-d?; TIME Magazine, December 28, 1992)
The same is true of the events of history. Taken one-by-one, modern-day
occurrences may give little reason for concern, in terms of altering one's
lifestyle in favor of Torah, or stricter observance. However, if one steps
back and looks at the "big picture," that is, all the events together in
one historical context, a "pattern" emerges. Pattern implies design; design
implies designer, and both imply Divine Providence and intervention, and an
advance warning to do teshuvah.
However, if history moves towards its final fulfillment, and people refuse
to reach out for the "big picture," then the "big picture" will come to
them. That is, the amount of the "events," and the nature of them, will
leave very little room to turn anywhere except back to G-d. In the words of
the psalmists, G-d will "circumcize" our hearts.
For, we are G-d's people, descendants of Avraham Avinu, whom G-d promised
to keep alive, and to whom He wishes to give the land of Israel, and
everlasting peace. This, as the commentators explain, is not the result of
any merit we may or may not have. (According to the Vilna Gaon and others,
the Final Redemption will not be because we merit the great miracles it
will take to bring it about.)
Rather, the Final Redemption will come because of a covenant made with the
Forefathers--Bris Avos--and we will be the recipients of that covenant.
First that may mean going through some rough times to "catch our
attention," as we have seen and have experienced over the last three
thousand years. And, as we seem to be experiencing today as well (5759/5760
promises to be a very "exciting" year ...).
However, like the curses of this week's parshah, which are but twenty-eight
verses that come and go each year, so too are the times of historic trouble
limited and temporary. But the "Banquet Hall" on the other side of this
"corridor" are unlimited and eternal, like the covenants of Avraham,
Yitzchak, and Ya'akov.
Have a great Shabbos,