Between the Lines—Behar

Weekly Midrash Learning with Rabbi Andrew Shugerman

Leviticus Rabbah 34:2

ד״א וכי ימוך אחיך עמך הה״ד (משלי יט) מלוה ה׳ חונן דל אר״א כתיב נותן לחם לכל בשר בא זה וחטף לו את המצוה אמר הקב״ה עלי לשלם לו גמולו הה״ד (שם) וגמולו ישלם לו ר׳ תנחומא אמר לה בשם ר׳ חייא בר אבא ר׳ נחמן אמר לה בשם ר׳ יודן בר״ש ורבנן בשם רשב״ל אלמלא מקרא כתוב אי אפשר לאומרו כביכול דרכו של לוה להיות עבד למלוה הה״ד (שם כב) ועבד לוה לאיש מלוה

Another exposition of the verse, "If your kinsman is in [financial] straits . . . " (Lev. 25:39). It is written in Scripture: "One who is generous to the poor makes a loan to the Lord; He will repay what is due" (Prov. 19:17). R. Eleazar said: It is written [elsewhere], "[God is the One] Who gives food to all flesh, whose steadfast love is eternal" (Ps. 136:25); since this person comes and fulfills the commandment [before God can act], the Blessed Holy One says: "I must compensate that person." Thus it is written, " . . . He will repay what is due" (Prov. 19:17). R. Tanhuma taught in the name of R. Hiyya b. Abba, R. Nahman taught in the name of R. Judan son of R. Simeon, and our Rabbis taught in the name of R. Simeon b. Lakish: "If not for a verse of Scripture, it would be impossible to say this: as it were, it is usual for a borrower [i.e., God] to become the servant of the lender; as it is written, " . . . The borrower is a servant to the lender!" (Prov. 22:7)

I love discovering rabbinic texts like the one above that make such radical claims about Torah and God in general or about particular laws like tzedakah (righteous giving), one subject at the heart of this week's Torah portion. This midrash seems to focus more upon theological inquiry than on providing practical guidance. By examining this text more closely, we can see how our notions about God can have a profound impact on our ability to give to the needy among us.

The midrash above discusses God's intimate relationship with people who alleviate others' poverty. Leviticus 25:37 specifically instructs us to make interest-free loans and to donate food to our less fortunate neighbors. Our Sages read that passage alongside related verses from Proverbs that depict God as a borrower from and servant to human lenders, inverting God's role from Lawgiver to one obligated under the Law. In order to make sense of these seemingly wild ideas, we must recognize that ancient lenders had to trust that the loan would be repaid without the use of long-term collateral and without any personal benefit aside from upholding God's law. Such a demonstration of faith in another person today usually entails a cosigner who guarantees that the borrower will repay the debt. Might the rabbis of this midrash have identified God as a guarantor as well?

That tongue-in-cheek question points toward a verse that challenges our entire human approach to money: " . . . the land is Mine; you are but strangers resident with Me" (Lev. 25:23). God created our world and is actively part of every relationship and encounter in human civilization. We may see certain things as our "possessions," but one message of Parashat Behar is that we are all merely borrowers from God, the Infinite Source of All, who enjoins us to share our blessings. Rabbi Yisrael Salanter famously taught that "the material needs of others are an obligation of my spiritual life." Along those lines, we all have plenty of spiritual homework to do.