In this week’s Torah portion, the Torah states: “Do not give him your money for interest, and do not give your food for increase. I am Hashem, your G-d, Who took you out of the land of Egypt…” (Leviticus 25:37-38).
What requires explanation is the connection between the ideas presented in these verses. Why does G-d choose this precise point to remind us that He took us out of Egypt?
The Talmud (Bava Metzia 61b) records two other times that this occurs. Parshat Kedoshim: “You shall have correct scales, correct weights, correct dry measures, and correct liquid measures — I am Hashem, your G-d, Who brought you forth from the land of Egypt” (Leviticus 19:36) and later on in Parshat Shelach, right after the commandment to wear tzitzit with t’chelet (an indigo-colored string dyed with a secretion of the sea creature chilazon — now believed by many to be the Hexaplex trunculus snail), the Torah writes, “I am the L-rd, your G-d, who took you out from the Land of Egypt” (Numbers 15:41). Why mention the Exodus at these junctures?
The Talmud explains the message as follows: G-d says, “I am the One Who in Egypt, by the Plague of the Firstborn, was able to discern which was a firstborn and which was not a firstborn. I, then, will also be able to know if someone lends his money with interest and claims that he is merely lending out the money of a non-Jew (and therefore permitted). I will be able to discern if someone is using weights which are subtly off and deceiving customers. I will be able to detect if someone is using t’chelet dyed with k’lai ilan (a cheaper, plant-based dye with an identical color but which is not halachically acceptable to create t’chelet with).”
Rav Shimon Schwab (an Orthodox rabbi and communal leader in Germany and the United States) further explains that all three instances are attempts to deviate from the truth. The sinner believes that because there is no way for an observer to know that he is transgressing, he’s in the clear.
But G-d cannot be deceived. We read in the Haggadah on the night of the Seder, “And Hashem took us out of Egypt — not by an angel, nor by a seraph, nor by a messenger. Rather it was the Holy One, blessed be He, Alone.” The Exodus was the ultimate demonstration of Truth in this world. Perhaps a messenger, or even an angel, would not have known exactly who was a firstborn and who was not. But G-d is Truth, the essence of Truth. And so, when He reveals Himself, all that is not true cannot exist. Indeed, the midrash says that all the false gods in Egypt were destroyed at that moment.
I would like to suggest that these three mitzvot represent three different areas of divine service. Mitzvot can be classified into three categories. The two most obvious are those between Man and G-d, and those between Man and his friend. Those would be represented by tzitzit and false weights, respectively. The obligation to wear tzitzit is a commandment that has no bearing on one’s fellow man. It is there to keep one focused on his connection to the Divine and to be ever conscious of the obligations of the mitzvot. It is equally clear that not cheating others in business and being honest in one’s dealings are directly related to another human being.
The mitzvah not to charge interest deserves consideration, however. The borrower is quite willing to pay the interest in order to secure a loan. There is nothing underhanded about it, and, what’s more, the lender is giving up possible profit that she might have made, had she had the money in hand. What’s wrong with it?
This represents those mitzvot that are between Man and himself. There are some mitzvot that are there to give a person founding to develop values. They are there to develop him as a human, to create a perspective and an outlook on his world.
I believe that this mitzvah is there to remind us that our obligation to others is not all equal. We have concentric circles of relationships around us, and our obligation is more to those we are closest to. “Charity begins at home.” While we might worry about the fate of the Bornean Orangutan, we have to be more worried about people in Somalia. While we must be concerned with the starving in Africa, we have to be more concerned with the hungry in Israel. Our cousin must be a bigger priority than a stranger; a neighbor more than a foreigner.
The Torah is reminding us that eventually we must meet up with the Ultimate Truth. Let us try to live our lives consistent with it. JN
Rabbi Sholom Twerski is the assistant rabbi of Beth Joseph Congregation and the rabbinic administrator at the Greater Phoenix Vaad HaKashruth.