Dvar Torah delivered by Mike Garmise on 27th Iyyar 5775, 16th May 2015
What a wonderful parsha we read today. It is filled with so much goodness and concern for others that if one could envelop himself in a non-permeable bubble and shut out the noises of the news and events this week, he would sit back and “kvell” because of the social consciousness of our parsha and of Judaism in general. It is a picture of compassion unlimited: compassion for the land, which must rest as we do, compassion for those who must sell their land but will not lose it forever, compassion for those who can’t keep their heads above water financially and we are commanded to help them and not let them sink, and compassion for those who nevertheless do sink to the level of indentured servant and must not be treated as slaves and must be set free, eventually.
Twice we are told that we must not wrong one another, and the explanation is that one reference prohibits monetary exploitation and the second refers to verbal abuse. We are to keep as close a count on – and accounting of – our words as of our money.
And then reality sets in. This was a strange week to experience, one where many of the Torah’s precepts were trampled, violated, defiled or ignored. The eruption of violence last Sunday night at Tahrir Rabin Square in Tel Aviv as the police and the Ethiopians did battle was long overdue and surprising only in that so few people were injured or arrested. As one interviewee said, it could have turned into a second Baltimore.
The list of criminal cases in the headlines was another morale booster. The lawyer who paid off a high ranking police investigator, or did the investigator pay off the lawyer, and the former city prosecutor who was accused of conspiring with the lawyer, and the line of defendants or potential defendants being led into court for remand was mind-boggling.
And finally, the government that was put together with such virtuosity by our prime minister promises to be as long-lasting and successful as the real plum sold to us at tremendous discount (or at only a modest mark-up) by our friendly local used car lot dealer. I’ll show you how strange this week was. The hero of the week (???) was Avigdor Lieberman, the most besmirched politician around, who, he said, refused to join the new government on principle, because the pending coalition was like a blow-out sale at the end of the year. And he had principles. And many people cheered because almost everything he said sounded right. Now that’s strange.
But back to the parsha. One of the interesting mitzvoth is that we are not allowed to charge interest on loans to fellow Jews. This is part of the commandment of “Let your brother live alongside you,” which in the Talmud was interpreted in two totally contradictory ways. One is that we must do everything to make sure that a person keeps up with us, so that he doesn’t fall under the grinding wheels of economic wagon trains. The other interpretation is that we must take such steps but that we come first. This second interpretation was given by Rabbi Akiva (the one who said, “Love your brother as yourself – that’s the main message of the Torah”).
And here is the story that is brought. You and a companion are in the desert. You have enough water for yourself but if you share with him, both of you will die. One opinion says – share it, and what happens – happens. The other says, you drink it and in effect let him die because your life takes precedence over another’s life. That’s Rabbi Akiva’s view.
How do two contradictory interpretations come from the same sentence? As Rabbi Ari Kahn points out, in both cases the result of the decision does not lead to “Let your brother live alongside you.” In one case both die, in the other case he dies, and in neither case are both living alongside one another. So – the message is that we should love our brother as ourselves – but not more than ourselves, that when push comes to shove, numero uno is just that.
The story is really extreme. The sentence appears as part of the injunction not to charge interest when lending money. In other words, this is how you let your brother live alongside you: you share your resources. But not to the point of endangering your own financial security or stability. Because if you go down, and he’s in no position to help because he is still sinking, who is going to save you?
The message is of import for many of the economic plans that the new government may or may not try to implement. There are some very large, rich companies in our society, and there are some very rich individuals out there too. And they should do their share to help the country and their fellow countrymen. They, in turn, will harp on the proviso that their own stability should not be endangered, lest they go down and everyone else around them sinks too.
And this is where the interpretations have already begun to fly, hot and heavy. What is too much? How much do tycoons and banks and insurance companies and Intel need – to remain financially sound? To what extent can they be milked without killing the cow that squirts the golden juice?
And let’s not forget the UNWEALTHY, the poor, and those who do not receive the educational opportunities that can potentially open doors to the world of economic solvency. Including those who willfully reject such opportunities. These are among the challenges our new government, and our new finance minister must face. Perhaps they should study today’s parsha carefully before they begin.