Financial Abuse: Transactions or Relationship-builders?

If I do someone a favor, and they repay that favor, are we then equal? Take an extreme case: you save someone’s life, and then, somehow, they save yours. From a rational perspective, one might say that neither party owes the other anything. Each can go their own way, debt-free. But from a human perspective, everything has changed: you now share a common and strong bond.

Any transaction can be understood in this way. We can be cold and transact with others merely for the purpose of buying or selling something. Or we can see every transaction as an opportunity to grow together. In a nutshell, this also describes a key ingredient in successful marriages: those who keep score in a marriage are missing the entire point.

Finances, like anything else, are a way to either build a relationship or, if done in a certain manner, take advantage. When Avraham buys the cave of Machpelah to bury his wife, the seller charges a ridiculous price: Avraham described himself as a “resident alien” and the seller saw the opportunity to abuse a grieving and desperate purchaser.

Indeed, the text uses the phrase “resident alien” later on in the text specifically to refer to the prohibition of charging interest.

If your kinsman, being in straits, comes under your authority, and you hold him as though a resident alien, let him live by your side: do not exact from him advance or accrued interest, but fear your God. Let him live by your side as your kinsman.

It is no accident that the Torah’s prohibition against taking advantage uses the exact same phrase that Avraham uses to describe himself before the seller abuses him: just because you can take advantage of a buyer does not mean that you ought to do so!

From a relationship perspective, this goes back to how we handle (and lend) money in the first place. If we give someone money or food or lodging, and they pay it back with interest, then we have made a transaction. The loan-shark is never loved, to put it mildly. On the other hand, if we either make a loan without interest or we invest in another person by taking a share of their venture in return for the money, then we have created the conditions within which our relationships may grow and flourish. I am a businessman: my investors are dear to me, while my creditors are merely third parties that need to be managed.

The Torah makes the same point in the use of its language. The word used for “interest” is “neshech.” In the Torah it means only one of two things: interest, and a snake bite. The first usage of the word is in the blessing for Dan:

Dan shall be a serpent by the road,
A viper by the path,
That bites [Neshech] the horse’s heels
So that his rider is thrown backward.

Neshech is not only a snakebite, but a predatory and parasitic force that unhorses the rider and brings him to the ground. The same word is later used to refer to snakes that bit and killed the people. Every single usage of “neshech” to mean a “bite” includes the word for “snake” in the same verse, a reminder of all the symbolism regarding a snake: the snake in Eden, the deceiving, manipulating and untrustworthy attacker, delivering a slow venom that slowly kills the prey. Interest is analogous to a snake bite!

The laws against charging interest in the Torah are there for precisely this reason: we are forbidden from charging other Jews interest because our longer-term dealings should always be for the purpose of building relationships, not merely engaging in a transaction. We are permitted to charge “outsiders” interest, because in those cases relationship-building is much more fraught with danger given the differences in culture and the possible absence of good faith. (The first time the word for “outsider” is used is by Rachel and Leah describing how their father had turned on them. Gen 31:15)

We can, as we have said, opt to charge interest to non-Jews. But this is not required; if we choose, we can extend them the same courtesy of not charging interest or directly finding some form of investment or partnership. Jewish history contains plenty of bitter reminders that interest-bearing money-lending does not enable or grow positive and trusting relationships.

The Torah is a guide book for how to have relationships with other people and with G-d. In that, we have G-d Himself as a role model. Here’s how: G-d explains why we are forbidden to charge interest with the following: “I the LORD am your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, to give you the land of Canaan, to be your God.”

Wait. What does the fact that G-d gave us the land of Canaan have anything to do with charging interest? How does this explain the prohibition against charging interest?

The answer is simple: The Land of Canaan is not given to the Jews unconditionally. Our ability to live in it and keep it are dependent on our relationships – both with each other and with G-d. If we fail to have constructive relationships then, the text tells us, we will be vomited out of the land, expelled and oppressed.

This is precisely what happened to the Jewish people both times that the Temple was destroyed and the people expelled. In both cases, the Jews brought sacrifices, following the letter of the law. But, as is abundantly clear in our histories, the people did not practice loving-kindness, ignoring the entire spirit of the Torah. We dealt transactionally with each other, in naked self-interest. And we did the same with G-d: we brought sacrifices, but we did it by going through the motions, not actually seeking to become closer, to grow.

We have the land that G-d has given us. He does not charge interest, and we do not pay it. Instead, the conditions are very much like a co-investment where each party brings something of value in the hopes of building something together, in a partnership. The relationship is the entire purpose, and so G-d reminds of the Land of Canaan when he tells us that we cannot charge interest to our countrymen.

[an @iwe, @kidcoder and @eliyahumasinter work]

Comments are welcome!