"When you lend money to my people, to the poor among you… you shall not impose interest upon him" Exodus 22:24

By Rina Wolfson, February 16, 2012

Perhaps the most distasteful aspect of the recession is the rise of loan companies charging exorbitant interest. So it is both disheartening and humbling to find the commandment prohibiting interest in this week's parashah.

Centuries ago, the rabbis were clear about the crippling effects of extortionate interest. In Exodus Rabba they note that the Hebrew for interest, neshech, also means "bite", explaining that interest is like a snake-bite. Initially, the pain is minor but rapidly swells until the whole body is consumed with poison and the victim is utterly overcome.

Although charging interest was forbidden, lending per se was not. Indeed, the Mechilta notes that the commandment should be understood "when" and not "if" you lend, suggesting that lending was a requirement. However the rabbis were clear that lending must be fair and compassionate. "The poor among you" is explained in the Tanchuma as a call for empathy - "imagine the poor man is you" - and the use of force in collecting repayments is banned outright. These measures are a far cry from the activity we are witnessing today.

The Kotzker Rebbe goes even further. He rearranges the Hebrew vowels in this verse, so that the word "lend", tilveh, becomes "accompany", telaveh. The reading then is "if any type of money accompanies my people, let it be the money given to the poor". By understanding the verse this way, he reminds us that we are all associated with the way we use our money. The way we support the poor in our society is the means by which we are all measured. It is that which "accompanies" us, and by which we are known.

Last updated: 11:57am, February 16 2012