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Parshas Mishpatim (5769)

WHOSE MONEY IS IT ANYWAY?

One of the more interesting commandments in the Bible can be found in this week’s Torah portion, where the Torah writes:

"When you lend money to My people, to the poor person who is with you, do not act toward him as a creditor; do not lay interest upon him" (Exodus 22:24).

There are two difficulties in this verse. First, why does G-d refer to poor people as "My people", which seems to imply that He cares more for them than He does for wealthy people? Second, from a philosophical standpoint, the prohibition against charging interest on a loan doesn't seem to make sense. After all, why shouldn't I be able to charge the borrower for the use of my money?

The great Kabbalistic work, the Zohar, makes a fascinating statement. It says that "G-d looked into the Torah and created the world". This means that when G-d was about to create the world we live in, He used the Torah as a blueprint. Everything here on earth was tailor-made to fit in to G-d's scheme of creation as laid out in the Torah.

This is a pretty radical concept for the contemporary Jew to accept, but if you think about it, it makes a lot of sense. Take the idea of parents, for example. Did you ever wonder why we need to have parents? And don't answer that we need parents in order to bring kids into the world. G-d created amoebas too, you know! He has many tricks up His sleeve. He could easily have created a world without the entire concept of Mommy and Daddy. So why then do we have parents?

The Zohar is teaching us that the answer to this question goes back to the beginning of creation. G-d had a plan to create a world in which His creations would enjoy a reciprocal relationship with Him. G-d provides the earth, oceans, fresh air, animal and plant life, etc. etc. and we have to respond in kind by following His orders (read: the Torah), which are only given to us for our own benefit. There's a slight hitch, though. Once we're born and we come into this beautiful, ready-made world, how is He going to ensure that we realize who created all this good stuff for us?

So G-d proceeded to create the idea of parents who are responsible for creating and bringing into the world the physical aspects of the child. He would then be the silent partner in the creation process, contributing the most important part of who we are - our souls. When G-d commanded the Jewish People to honor their father and mother, His plan was that we would make the following equation: I have to show gratitude and honor to my parents for giving birth to me and raising me; how much more so do I have to show gratitude and thanks to G-d, the most important partner in the creative process.

[This explains why the Fifth Commandment - Honor your Father and Mother - is on the right side of the Tablets, together with all the commandments between man and G-d. The essence of the commandment is about showing gratitude to those who love us and take care of us. And that applies to our father and mother down here, but even more so to our Father in Heaven Who loves us more than we'll ever know.]

This idea applies to other areas as well. We tend to think that there is a mitzvah to give charity to poor people because they're poor and they need it. In reality, though, the exact opposite is true. If we believe that G-d created the world we live in, we must ask ourselves some tough questions. Like, why did He make some people poor, while other folks live in fancy mansions and vacation in Aruba? After all, doesn’t G-d love all of us? Aren’t we all His children? So why couldn’t He give all of us enough money to live comfortably, instead of making some of us poor, thus being forced to rely on the rich in order to survive?

The real reason why some people are economically challenged, says the Zohar, is so as to enable the rich people to fulfill the mitzvah of Tzedakah (charity) through them! Ultimately, it’s not for the benefit of poor people that G-d commanded us to give charity (since G-d could have made them rich if He wanted to) but for the benefit of the rich people who give it! When a rich person gives charity properly, he learns how to trust in G-d and recognizes G-d as being the True Source of his wealth and prosperity. And these are crucial lessons that all of us – especially the wealthier among us – need to learn and integrate into our lives.

It thus emerges that the beautiful concept of Tzedakah and its implicit lessons of faith and trust in G-d, as set forth in His Torah, made necessary the creation of an entire system of people with different economic levels in which the rich can sustain the poor and thereby gain spiritually as a result.

This novel idea of the Zohar really challenges our cozy, neat and convenient perception of the way things work in this world. We are trained in Western society to think that the successful tycoon got to where he is because of his amazing business acumen, and the poor shlepper is poor because he's either lazy or he's a shlepper, or maybe it's just fate. What the Zohar is asking us to do is to remove ourselves for a moment from the conventional way of thinking, and to think about the bigger picture.

We can now understand why G-d refers to poor people in this week’s Torah portion as "My people". He is reminding us that He loves all His people equally, and that the only reason why He gave more money to the rich is so that they can share their wealth with the poor, thereby refining and elevating themselves in the process.

Looking at the seemingly random distribution of wealth in the world from this perspective, we can better understand the underlying rationale for the commandment not to charge interest when lending money to someone in need.

If the only reason why some of us have more money than others is not because of our great investment strategies, but rather because G-d deemed it necessary for us to have that extra money so that we should grow spiritually through the charity that we give, then we are really just “holding on to that money” till such time that an opportunity presents itself for us to lend or give it away to the guy who needs it. And, in effect, it's not really our money – but G-d’s money – that was given to us to give away, so we have no right to charge interest on it.

[This concept can be difficult to digest for many people, especially for the big CEO who has just pulled off the deal of the century worth hundreds of millions of dollars. Go tell him that without G-d, he couldn't have done it! Ultimately, though, we have to admit that we can't do it all ourselves. Incorporated in the daily prayers is a request that G-d sustain us by blessing our means of making a living and that He help us stay healthy. If we can accept that - try as we might to eat right and stay healthy - our health and, ultimately, our very lives are still pretty much in G-d's hands, than it's not too much of a leap to extend that to our livelihoods as well. And especially in today’s financially unstable climate, when affluent people find themselves losing their entire fortunes overnight, it becomes increasingly easier to see how little control we humans really have over our own money.]

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