Parashat Behar: Financial Security
The Torah in Parashat Behar presents one of the more surprising Misvot governing interpersonal relations, namely, the prohibition against charging interest (25:36). When a person needs a loan, we are to lend him money for free, without charging any interest.
Several questions arise concerning this prohibition. First and foremost, what’s wrong with charging interest? One who lends money is unable to use that money in the interim; it is no different than lending a car, which the owner is then unable to use until it is returned. Why, then, does the Torah allow leasing out one’s car for money, but not lending money on interest? Secondly, although the Torah here in Parashat Behar addresses specifically the case of an impoverished person in need of loan, our Sages derived from other sources that the prohibition applies even to wealthy people who need a loan to expand their enterprises. Why does the Torah forbid charging interest to a wealthy person, who would have no problem at all paying the interest? Another seemingly strange Halacha regarding interest is that the prohibition applies even if the borrower agrees to the arrangement. A person may not lend money on interest even if the borrower insists that he would be happy to pay whatever percentage the lender demands. In fact, the borrower himself is forbidden to pay interest. Why?
The Keli Yakar (Rav Shlomo Efrayim Luntshitz, 1540-1619) explains that the prohibition against interest has nothing to do with our concern for the borrower’s financial wellbeing. If it did, then it would not apply in cases of a wealthy borrower or if the borrower agrees to pay interest. Rather, the Keli Yakar writes, a person who lends on interest is at risk of losing his faith in G-d as the One who exerts full control over our livelihood. In any profession or business, success is never guaranteed. A person can lose his job or clients, a competitor can get in the way, the product or service can become obsolete, or other things can go wrong. When a person lends on interest, however, he feels secure in his profits. He has the borrower caught in his web, and even if the borrower is unable to pay, the lender can keep the collateral. And so making a living through money lending, the Keli Yakar asserts, does not come with the kind of risk to which the Torah wants us to expose ourselves in regard to our livelihood. We are to feel financial security only through faith, with the knowledge that it is G-d, and only G-d, who provides us with our needs.
For this reason, the Keli Yakar explains, this prohibition applies to both poor and wealthy borrowers: since the idea is to prevent the lender from feeling too confident, the borrower’s financial status is immaterial. And, we now understand why a borrower may not agree to pay interest, as he thereby contributes to the lender’s sense of security.
This also explains why this prohibition is mentioned here, in Parashat Behar, where the Torah speaks at length about the Misva of Shemita (the Sabbatical year). Shemita marks the ultimate test of faith, requiring a farmer to essentially shut down his business for an entire year, as he must refrain from all agricultural work and allow anyone who wants to take the produce. The farmer must rely on G-d’s promise that the sixth year’s yield will suffice until new produce is planted and harvested after Shemita. One cannot observe Shemita unless he fully believes in G-d’s unlimited ability to provide his sustenance, regardless of his efforts.
These two laws – the prohibition against interest and the law of Shemita – seek to remind us that while we can and must put in a hard day’s week to earn a living, ultimately, our livelihood depends solely on G-d, and we must therefore turn to Him at all times and ask for His continued blessing. We must remember that there is no such thing as "financial security" – except when we place our trust in G-d and have complete faith in His unlimited ability to provide for us and for our families.