The Great Loan of Life
Chapter 2, Mishna 14(a)
By Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld
"He [Rabban Yochanan] said to them [his students]: Go out and see which is a bad way which a person should avoid. R. Eliezer said: A bad eye. R. Yehoshua said: A bad friend. R. Yossi said: A bad neighbor. R. Shimon said: One who borrows and does not pay back. One who borrows from a person is as one who borrows from G-d, as it says, 'A wicked person borrows and does not repay, but the Righteous One is gracious and gives' (Psalms 37:21). R. Elazar said: A bad heart. He said to them: I prefer the words of Elazar ben (son of) Arach over your words, for included in his words are your words."
This mishna is nearly a mirror image of the previous. Earlier, R. Yochanan asked his students to determine a single good trait or practice one should adopt (for as we explained then, it is often more constructive to perfect a single trait than to attempt to be great in everything). This week, the rabbi asked the students for a single bad trait or practice to avoid. And for the most part, the students responded with the reverse of their previous responses: a bad eye rather than a good one, a bad rather than good neighbor, etc. If so, what does this mishna add over the previous?
The commentator R. Yonah explains that the students' answers in this mishna are not self-evident. Often the opposite of a good trait is not a bad one. As R. Yonah illustrates, one who acts beyond the letter of the law -- say, who rises early every morning to pray precisely at sunrise -- is righteous, but one who cannot discipline himself for such is hardly wicked. He just lacks a certain praiseworthy deed.
Continues R. Yonah, we might likewise have thought the same regarding the traits listed here. One who possesses a good eye looks favorably upon others and is not jealous of their achievements, even if greater than his own. We may well have thought that one who lacks such is hardly "evil". As R. Yonah puts it, one might have thought that so long as he is not actually stealing from his fellow he is basically acting correctly. But a little (or a lot of) jealousy and resentment does not make him wicked.
To this R. Eliezer tells us that a bad eye is every bit as destructive as a good eye beneficial. One who begrudges his fellow's talents or accomplishments will never amount to anything himself. He will wallow in self-pity, wishing he were someone he is not. If we do not accept ourselves for whom we are, we will never achieve ourselves. We will pursue vain hopes, attempting to force ourselves into another's role, and we will fail to fulfill the first and most basic obligation of the Torah and of life: being ourselves.
The same is true of most of the other qualities listed. The bad friend or neighbor exerts as negative an influence on those around him as does the good, and the one with a bad heart is as cold and insensitive to the needs of others as the good-hearted soul is warm and caring.
The exception to this is R. Shimon. Last week he recommended the good quality of seeing consequences. This week he does not decry simply not seeing consequences, but one who borrows and does not pay back. (As the commentators elaborate, his failure to pay is not due to unforeseen circumstances but was a result of his initial recklessness. He borrowed without the slightest idea or concern how he would ever make good his loan.)
Thus, we have a case in point illustrating R. Yonah's answer. Merely not seeing consequences is not so utterly destructive as to warrant inclusion in our mishna's list. One who does not see consequences is shortsighted and a poor planner, but hardly deserves to be one of the "finalists" mentioned here.
Rather, R. Shimon's counterexample is along the lines of his previous example but is much more severe. One who borrows with no concern for the future is not only shortsighted, but reckless to a fault, risking others' property in the process. (I recently read of a young man whose gambling compulsions forced him to "borrow" other people's possessions -- such as his mother-in-law's diamond ring. And he of course felt he didn't really have a problem.) One who cannot survive financially may have to swallow his pride and accept charity or try even harder to make it on his own. But going off with another's money under false pretenses is not only shortsighted. It ruins relationships and destroys a person's integrity. It is nothing short of courting disaster.
R. Samson Raphael Hirsch expands on this theme. We can appreciate that recklessness is a serious shortcoming, but why does it rate so low in R. Shimon's list? Is it a religious failing or merely unwise financial and social behavior?
R. Hirsch explains as follows. Ignoring obvious consequences is not only a financial shortcoming; it is a religious one of the highest order . One who does not worry about tomorrow because he wants the money today is looking for that which is gratifying in the immediate, willfully ignoring anything beyond. And such a person will fail in the ultimate challenge of life. Aren't our entire lives a "loan" from G-d? Didn't He grant us a finite number of years to be used in the manner He wishes? Won't all of us one day stand before G-d to justify our years spent on this earth? If I can squander my fellow's money because I want to live it up today, chances are I will enjoy my talents, wealth and blessings during my lifetime, choosing to ignore the fact that for all my actions I will one day stand trial before G-d.
We will learn later that this world is an "entrance chamber" before the World to Come (4:21) The thinking person understands that there is more to life than that which gives him pleasure today. He will make intelligent choices, recognizing that true fulfillment in both this world and the next stems from meaning and accomplishment rather than entertainment and distractions. We must prepare ourselves to repay that Great Loan of Life G-d has granted us. And one who is prudent and forthcoming with his financial obligations might just be on the right track.
"One who borrows from a person is as one who borrows from G-d:" The commentator Rashi (11th century France) explains that as we know, G-d eventually corrects the injustices of this world, if not in this world then in the next. Thus, one who borrows and does not return is so to speak forcing G-d to repay the lender.
R. Yonah explains in a similar vein. Say a person declares bankruptcy, absolving himself of his financial obligations. He may well feel he has successfully evaded accountability and has gotten himself off the hook. To this the verse reminds us that one who borrows from another also obligates himself to G-d. He will be forced to respond not only to earthly courts but to G-d Himself: Was his bankruptcy foreseen? Was there any negligence on his part? For only at the point the person has extricated himself from his earthly obligations does his reckoning truly begin.
Text Copyright © 2008 by Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld and Torah.org.