What’s So Bad About Taking Ribbis?

Lo sashich l’achicha neshech kesef neshech ochel neshech kol davar asher yishach (Devarim 23:20)

The Torah forbids us to collect ribbis (interest) when we make a loan to another Jew. Although most of the 613 Biblical mitzvos are not discussed in Nach (the books of the Prophets and Writings), the prohibition against ribbis is mentioned in Yechezkel (18:13), and states that a person who gives loans with usury and takes interest shall not live. The Midrash (Yalkut Yechezkel 375) derives from here that somebody who lends money with ribbis will not merit experiencing techiyas hameisim (being resurrected after his death). Why is this transgression treated so harshly and deemed so much worse than other financial sins that are not punished in this manner?

Harav Mordechai Druk explains that it is human nature to be tempted to cheat and steal and, unfortunately, people occasionally succumb to their impulses, for which they are obligated to do teshuvah. However, when somebody sees another Jew struggling and callously seeks to take advantage of his suffering, this represents a fundamentally different level of evil.

The Gemara (Yevamos 79a) teaches that compassion is one of the defining characteristics of the Jewish nation. A person who is reduced to accepting a loan that must be paid back with interest is in dire financial straits. There is a great mitzvah to help such an individual pay his bills and get back on his feet. Somebody who refuses to give him an interest-free loan and insists on profiting from another Jew’s misfortune lacks the sensitivity to others inherent in every Jew and displays an unforgivable level of cruelty, and for this he is punished with eternal oblivion.

This insight can help us understand the mitzvah of shiluach haken — sending away the mother bird from her nest, and then taking her eggs or young for oneself — which also appears in Parashas Ki Seitzei (Devarim 22:7). The Netziv and Harav Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld explain that under normal circumstances, it is virtually impossible to capture a bird, for its nature is to swiftly fly away from any perceived threat.

There is one exception: When a mother bird is sitting on her eggs or babies she is reluctant to flee, for she feels a maternal responsibility for her brood, and the thought of abandoning them to a predator pains her deeply. Even stronger than her instincts to pursue self-preservation is her motherly desire to protect her young. Because her loyalty and devotion render her vulnerable to easy capture, the Torah specifically commands us not to seize the mother bird, for doing so would be taking unfair advantage of the distress she feels about deserting her offspring, which runs counter to the essence of a Jew.

On a deeper level, Rabbi Yissocher Frand cites the Avnei Nezer, who explains that we are ordinarily permitted to kill animals for our use because man is created b’tzelem Elokim (Bereishis 1:27) — in the image of Hashem — and animals are subordinate to us. In what sense are humans formed in Hashem’s image?

The Abarbanel explains that the word tzelem (image) is linked to the word tzel (shadow). By definition, a shadow copies a person’s movements: When we turn our heads or lift our hands, our shadows do the same. In describing man as being fashioned in Hashem’s image, the Torah is teaching us that we have the ability to mimic Hashem’s attributes, and just as He treats His creations with generosity and kindness, so, too, can we who are created in His image imitate his traits.

With this introduction, the Avnei Nezer explains that when a mother bird willingly jeopardizes her life to remain with her offspring and protect them, she is not merely displaying mercy for her young. By showing compassion for others, she becomes elevated and is no longer a simple animal. At this moment, she is emulating Hashem and conducting herself in His image. As such, the general heter (allowance) to kill an animal — which is predicated on man’s superiority — no longer applies, for the mother bird has uplifted herself by emulating Hashem’s ways.

Q: Why is the mitzvah of keeping honest weights and measures (Devarim 25:13-16) specifically rewarded with long life?

A: Harav Elazar Fleckeles explains based on the teaching of the Gemara (Sotah 9a) that Hashem doesn’t punish a person for his sins until his “Heavenly cup” becomes full of sins. However, Hashem judges people measure for measure, and someone who sins by using inaccurate weights and measures runs the risk of having his Divine quota unfairly adjusted, which could result in his being punished prematurely.

Only a person who is careful to use honest weights and measures will be guaranteed that Hashem will treat him in the same manner, which will enable him to live a longer and fuller life.

Originally from Kansas City, Rabbi Alport graduated from Harvard, learned in Mir Yerushalayim for five years, and now lives in Brooklyn, where he learns in Yeshivas Beis Yosef, is the author of the recently published sefer Parsha Potpourri, and gives weekly shiurim. To send comments to the author or to receive his divrei Torah weekly, please email oalport@Hamodia.com.