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Weekly Chizuk

Parshas Mishpatim

Bitachon, Budgeting, and Borrowing

"When [Heb. im ] you lend money to My people, to the poor person [who is] with you, you shall not behave toward him as a lender; you shall not impose interest upon him."?(Shemos 22:24)

Rashi comments that contrary to the usual translation of the word - "Im" - "if," here, however, it means "when," implying it is not merely voluntary, but a dictate. Thus our sages derive that there is a Positive Commandment in the Torah to lend money to anyone who needs it. This applies, whether the recipient is a wealthy person who is having a cash-flow problem, or a poor person; according to the financial ability of the lender, and for as long as possible. This brings us to the topic borrowing money.

An issue of vital importance in our time is whether it is appropriate to borrow money to purchase things that we otherwise could not afford. Many people feel it is absolutely necessary to have certain items, be it new furniture, a microwave oven, a nice vacation, etc., but they don't have the necessary money. In times past, if one didn't have the funds, he didn't buy it. Today, however, we are witnessing a new phenomenon: the rise of the bank overdraft, credit cards, and the proliferation of interest-free loans - gemachim. With loans so easily available, the number of people who find themselves mired in debt has become staggering. Their attitude might be summed up as follows: We have been taught that Hashem is the true provider. If so, we can borrow money and trust that He will help us repay it - right?

It's Absolutely Necessary! I Must Have It!

Let us begin the discussion by making a distinction between necessities and luxuries. The Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chaim 156) states that one should make his business secondary to his Torah studies. The Mishnah Berurah (note 2) comments that this means a person should only work as much as is necessary to support himself. This, however, requires a great deal of caution so that one not be seduced by the evil inclination to work much more than he has to. "The main thing," advises the Mishnah Berurah, "is to realize that the real necessities are those that it is impossible to live without. When you understand this, your endeavors will be successful, because your business will be secondary and your Torah study will be primary."

The Chofetz Chaim (in the Mishnah Berurah cited above and in Sha'ar Ha-Tziyun 3) offers some perceptive advice on how to accomplish this. It is very easy to be fooled by the evil inclination, which makes everything seem like a necessity we can't live without. However, there is an extremely reliable test that can help us determine whether or not something is a real necessity. Let's say you made a business deal with someone to finance his expenses for a year. You'll supply him with enough money to take care of all his needs so that he can have a reasonable standard of living. At one point he approaches you and says that he needs some money to buy such and such, insisting that it is a real necessity. Would you give him the money? Or would you tell him that the item is a luxury he can live perfectly well without it? If it's a luxury for someone else, it's a luxury for you as well.

Be Careful - You May Not Get It Back

You may object: "But Hashem is a merciful Father! He can certainly afford it!" Of course this is true; however, let us look at exactly what He promised us: Chazal (Beitzah 16a) teach that one's entire income is fixed from Rosh Hashanah except for the expenses incurred for teaching one's children Torah and for Shabbos and Yom Tov. Based on this, the Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chaim 529:1) advises us not to be stingy with Yom Tov expenses.

The Mishnah Berurah (in Be'ur Halachah) cautions that this statement refers only to Torah study and Shabbos and Yom Tov expenses; regular weekday expenses are not included. Commenting on this teaching of the Gemara, Rashi advises against unnecessary spending. If it isn't a necessity, there is no guarantee that Hashem will pay you back!

The Be'ur Halachah (on Orach Chaim 529:1, and see also Orach Chaim 242 - Sha'ar Ha-Tziyun 13) makes the following comment on Rashi's statement: This is a strong reprimand against the attitude displayed in our time [it seems they had the same problem we do!] wherein many people disregard Rashi's advice, not paying attention to manage their household expenses and refraining from purchasing extras. Too many people have fallen victim to this terrible habit, which eventually brings one to theft and extortion and disgrace and humiliation. There are many reasons for this terrible custom. One of the main causes is the lightheadedness of housewives who lack foresight. Fortunate is the one who hardens his heart and pays no attention to these temptations, and budgets his household expenses according to his income and no more.

But It's a Mitzvah!

We started out our discussion by noting that it is inappropriate to borrow money for non-essentials in order to live beyond one's means. But what about borrowing money to fulfill the Torah's commandments? What do you do when you want to perform a mitzvah but do not have enough money to do so? Doesn't Chazal's statement which is quoted above promise that we will be able to afford mitzvos? Is it all right to borrow money in order to perform a mitzvah? The Mishnah Berurah (Orach Chaim 242 - Mishnah Berurah, notes 3 and 4, and Sha'ar Ha-Tziyun 12) provides an answer. The Shulchan Aruch there is talking about a person who does not have enough money to buy extra food for his Shabbos meals. The Shulchan Aruch rules that if someone is in very difficult circumstances and cannot afford anything extra, he should eat regular weekday food and not take charity for oneg Shabbos.

The Mishnah Berurah comments that this only applies if the person cannot obtain a loan. If it is possible, he should borrow money in order to fulfill the mitzvah of having an enjoyable Shabbos meal. As Chazal tell us: "The Almighty says, 'My children, rely on Me and borrow, and I will pay the loan back.'" The Ba'er Heitev (in the same section of the Mishnah Berurah) quotes the above-mentioned statement by Chazal that all of one's income is fixed from Rosh Hashanah except for the expenses incurred for teaching one's children Torah and for Shabbos and Yom Tov.

In Sha'ar Ha-Tziyun, the Mishnah Berurah cites the opinions of the Vilna Gaon and the Bach that one should take a loan and trust that Hashem will help him pay the money back. However, the Ateres Zekeinim states that one should not borrow unless he foresees that he will be able to repay the loan. This is also the opinion attributed to the Steipler Rav, and the view of R. Shlomo Wolbe (Zeriah u'Binyan b'Chinuch, p. 52).

The Chazon Ish was quite adamant about taking loans. He wrote, "Don't borrow money from anyone!" (Collected Letters, vol. 1, section 20.) Once, when one of his talmidim asked advice about taking out a loan to buy an apartment, he became quite upset. "How can you take out a loan?" the Chazon Ish asked him. "It's quite possible that you will transgress in the manner of 'The wicked one who borrows and does not repay [Tehillim 37:21]!'" (Ma'aseh Ish, vol. 4, p. 141) After citing both opinions, the Mishnah Berurah concludes: "It seems that everything depends upon the situation." This mysterious statement leaves us groping in the dark: what is this situation that everything depends upon? I heard from Moreinu v'Rabbeinu Ha-Rav Chaim Pinchas Scheinberg that everything depends upon how much faith a person has. If one has perfect bitachon (not false bitachon), then one can borrow for mitzvos even if he sees no way of paying back, on the strength of his confidence that the Almighty will help him out. However, if one's bitachon is not so strong - and this is usually the case - then he should not incur any monetary obligations that he cannot pay back.

Moreinu v'Rabbeinu Ha-Rav Chaim Dov Altusky commented that in light of R. Scheinberg's comment, perhaps the Steipler's opinion (that one should never borrow money unless he sees some way of paying back the loan in the future) is not as unequivocal as it first sounds. In truth, everything depends upon the individual. If one is confident that even though he may not be able to actually earn the money to pay back the loan he will at least be able to borrow from somewhere else to repay the original loan, then he may borrow. This, however, is conditional upon the fact that such a debt will not interfere with his Torah study. But getting involved in such a situation often leads to depressed spirits and agitation for the borrower. Or sometimes it involves numerous trips between gemachim, causing considerable loss of valuable Torah study time. In those circumstances one should not borrow unless he knows with certainty that he will be able to pay the loan back.

Avoid Borrowing

R. Shmuel Tefilinsky (in Kuntres Ha-Tzavo, as cited in Mishel Avos vol. 1, p. 344), recalls an incident from a newspaper:

A certain gentleman immigrated to Eretz Yisrael, taking with him his life's savings of 6,000 liras. The man decided to invest his money in real estate, and he found a building in Tel Aviv that he thought would give him a good return for his money. The only problem was that the building cost 12,000 liras - twice as much as he had. With very little compunction, he took out a bank loan of 6,000 liras and closed the deal.

Shortly thereafter, the economy went into a depression and the man's fortunes took a turn for the worse. To his dismay, he found himself unable to meet the loan payments. He was taken to court for defaulting on the loan, and the judge ruled in favor of the bank. The building was put up for auction and was sold for a mere 4,000 liras! The man was left penniless. To add insult to injury, he was sent to jail for defaulting on the remaining 2,000 liras.

I thought to myself, [relates R. Tefilinsky,] "If only he had been smart and considered the future, he would have put his 6,000 liras into a smaller building and been content with that. Then, he would have been left with his building during the depression and could have ridden out the storm. He would have had some assets left for the future when better times came. Instead, he overextended himself by borrowing money to pay for the larger building, and now he's suffering needlessly, with nothing to show for it! What a profound lesson!"

R. Tefilinsky recalls another incident:

I once heard about a wealthy businessman in Israel who imported merchandise from abroad. More than once it happened that large amounts of his wares were held up by customs officials. In order to have the goods released, he would have to pay a considerable amount of customs duties. It sometimes happened that he was short of the required sum by a few liras. This is not a sum that most people would concern themselves about, but this man had a firm policy of never borrowing money - even the smallest amount. Thus, whenever he found himself in this situation, he refused to borrow what he needed. Instead, he would leave his wares in storage until he had enough money to pay for them. This was despite the fact that he was forced to pay storage fees on top of the customs duties. He had made it a personal practice not to borrow money for anything whatsoever, and he was determined to stick to his rule.

This practice of his was very successful, and he lived his whole life honorably and affluently. He was well known for his charitable deeds, and was loved and respected by all. He passed away with his sterling reputation intact, and was mourned by a great many people.

His son, however, was not content to follow in his father's footsteps. Even though he inherited a fortune, he wasn't satisfied with what he had. In order to expand his business, he borrowed money and incurred heavy debts. It didn't take long for the crisis to come, and soon he had lost all of his money - together with the investments of numerous poor people, orphans, and widows who had trusted in him.

This is the outcome of seeking to make big profits from borrowed money.

Wishing Everyone A Gut Shabbos!

Rabbi Eliezer Parkoff
4 Panim Meirot, Jerusalem 94423 Israel
Tel: 732-858-1257
Rabbi Parkoff is author of "Chizuk!" and "Trust Me!" (Feldheim Publishers), and "Mission Possible!" (Israel Book Shop Lakewood).
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