When your brother becomes poor… you shall strengthen him... do not take from him interest… (25:36).
The Sifra interprets the words you shall strengthen him to mean that he must be helped before he falls into a more serious financial plight. The Sifra asks - to what may this be compared? To a load on a donkey's back. One person can prevent the load falling off the donkey, but even five people may not be able to put it back once it has fallen off.
The Torah states that no interest may be charged when financial aid is given in the form of a loan. What seems hard to understand is the position of this mitzva relative to the others in this section. The Torah mentions four progressively bad circumstances, and in what way we are obliged to help a person in those situations. In order, they are: 1. Being forced to sell ones real estate because of poverty: he may buy it back at a later date.
2. Reaching the poverty line: others are obliged to lend him money interest-free (the case of the text under study).
3. Losing all ones property and having no choice but to sell oneself into slavery: the owner must provide for him as well as himself, and give him the chance to earn his freedom.
4. Having to sell oneself to a non-Jew: he must be redeemed immediately.
In this context the Sifra's comment is hard to understand. If indeed the help commanded by the Torah is to prevent poverty, why isn't the commandment of lending money interest-free written placed before the situation of a person having to sell his own real estate, and not after? Surely prevention is better than cure, as the Sifra implies in his comment?
The following well-known statement of the Rambam could give an approach to answering the question:
The highest degree (of tzedaka) is to aid a man in need… so that he may become self-supporting (Mattanot Aniyyim 10:8-14).
Thus the highest degree of tzedaka is not necessarily achieved by direct financial assistance. The Torah implies another way of 'long term tzedaka' - it teaches a painful lesson at the first stage above, so that the individual may not become destitute in the future. The lesson is being required to sell one's real estate because of financial difficulties. It may well mean losing something of great personal value, but life can continue without it. Indeed such an experience may be beneficial in the long run: it could teach a person to be careful with money to the extent that he should never have to sell his own property again. So he will be self-supporting and maintain his self-respect at the same time. As the Talmud puts it: better to make your Shabbat standard of living like a weekday, than rely on other people for material support (Shabbat 118a). And in encouraging a person to become self-supporting and learn the real value of money - the greatest level of tzedaka - the Torah gives the seller hope and something to aim for: the opportunity of buying back his own property.
However the two most extreme cases of poverty listed - the need for the genuinely destitute to sell themselves into slavery - must be avoided at all costs. It is for that reason that the Torah brings the mitzva of granting interest-free loans before describing those situations. Once a person has actually had sell himself as a slave and lose his freedom, he may well have a stigma for life even after his freedom… This then illustrates the Sifra's statement - one person can prevent the load falling from the donkey, but even five people may not be able to put it back once it has fallen off…
This article is provided as part of Shema Yisrael Torah Network
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