Ki Tetze: The Torah’s social revolution

This week's Torah portion is filled with laws pertaining to war, personal commandments relating to a person’s private life and interpersonal relationships.

The Torah (photo credit: REUTERS)
The Torah
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Parshat Ki Teitzeh is part of Moshe’s Rabbeinu’s long speech preceding his death, just days before the nation enters the Land of Israel and establishes the first independent Jewish state in history. The Torah portion is filled with various commandments, beginning with laws pertaining to war, personal commandments relating to a person’s private life, through commandments that fall under the category of “ben adam le’chavero” – interpersonal relationships.
Though there are many things we can learn from this week’s Torah portion, we will focus on two halachot, Jewish laws, that deal with loans and security deposits. In the past, it was customary to give a loan in return for a security – some object of the same value as the loan. This was given by the borrower to the lender as a deposit or guarantee until the loan was paid back. If the borrower did not return the loan at the agreed-upon time, the lender could take the object in exchange for the debt. This arrangement was customary in the ancient world, before the days of mortgages, securities, bank guarantees, and so on.
In our Torah portion, we find two halachot that put the relationship between lender and borrower, and between the top percentiles in society and those of lower socioeconomic status, in a different light. At first glance it seems surprising, but when delved into more deeply, they depict great values of justice suitable for a Jewish state about to be established after Am Yisrael enters Eretz Yisrael.
Here are the verses which appear in our Torah portion (with the addition of some explanation): “When you lend your fellow [Jew] any item, you shall not enter his home to take his security.
“You shall stand outside, and the man to whom you are extending the loan shall bring the security to you outside.
“And if he [the borrower] is a poor man, you shall not lie down [to sleep] with his security [you shall not keep the security in your house at night, but rather...] “You shall return the security to him by sunset, so that he may lie down [to sleep] in his garment, and he will bless you, and it will be counted for you as merit before the Lord, your God.”
(Deuteronomy 24, 10-13) Let us summarize the two halachat we just read: The first halacha says that collecting the security must not be done while entering the home of the borrower. On the contrary, the lender must stand outside and wait for the borrower to bring the security outside to him. The second halacha says that if the security is an item that the borrower needs during the night, such as a blanket, the lender must not keep the security at night but must return it to the borrower toward evening and then take it back again the next morning.
By the way, another halacha that complements this second one is found in Exodus (22, 25) where the Torah instructs the lender to return to the borrower clothing that he needs during the day, and take it back only at night.
There is no doubt that these two halachot express a revolutionary social attitude that Moshe Rabbeinu wanted to bequeath to the nation about to establish its own state. Even today, when the Western world attempts to protect the rights of the individual without regard to his financial standing, it is hard to find laws such as these.
Let’s imagine how these halachot were implemented and what their contribution is to the nation’s social consciousness.
The wealthy lender facing the needy borrower naturally feels superior. His swollen wallet and abundant bank account can lead him to arrogance and a sense of superiority over another.
In addition, the borrower is dependent on the kindness of the lender and needs to take a loan from him. Now the lender comes to the home of the borrower to take the object acting as the security or guarantee of the loan, and – Stop! Do not enter! Please wait outside until the borrower brings you the object.
Moreover, the violence that might accompany taking the security object is completely eliminated. It will not take place here and cannot affect the borrower’s young children or his social standing. True, he does not have enough money, but that does not mean that he should be humiliated.
The second halacha deals with a slightly different aspect: compassion.
True, dear lender, you gave him a loan. True that you also, rightfully, took a security deposit, the only blanket he has. But think for a moment – Do you want him to be cold at night? Do you want him, the one in need, to look into his wife’s eyes this evening and tell her, “My dear, we have nothing to cover ourselves with, because I had no choice and had to take out another loan”? Is that what you want? Therefore, as opposed to marketing laws or any egocentric, economic calculation, the Torah instructs you, dear lender: You must return his only blanket before nightfall so that at night, when the borrower goes to sleep, he will bless you and think, “Thank you, dear lender. Thank you for being so humane. Bless you.” Then you will be fulfilling also the end of the verse, “and it will be counted for you as merit before the Lord, your God.”
The Torah uses these verses to declare a social revolution – one in which the needy is not humiliated by the wealthy, and the man from the top percentile never forgets the despair of the poor and needy. This sort of social reality is what is expected of a Jew who has a responsibility toward another.
The writer is rabbi of the Western Wall and holy sites.