When it comes to questions of poverty and economic justice, the Torah has a way of speaking across the ages to the complexities of rich and poor. In Parashat Re'eh, Moshe introduces an idea that even today seems unique: free loans to poor people.
We usually idealize a form of giving that is pure generosity, not tainted by selfishness or hope of anything in return. If we could achieve such generosity, it would indeed be ideal. What happens when we don't? Or worse, what happens when we think we are unselfish but actually aren't?
For instance, sometimes we give with an expectation of gratitude in return, or a hope that we will simply feel good about ourselves. Perfectly normal! But what if those hopes aren't satisfied? We might pull back a little back from being so giving the next time, or become disillusioned. Even giving can have that element of self-centeredness.
Worse, I think, is what might happen in a relationship of pure giving with nothing in return. A one-way gift sets up an uncomfortable or embarrassing relationship. Or an unequal one (when it was our intent to give because everyone is equal!).
The Torah's free loan idea is a remarkable cure for all of these potential pitfalls of giving. A free loan is essentially two gifts. Each party gets to give, and to receive. No one gains or loses; it's an equal partnership. When the loan is repaid, the embarrassment disappears and so does the inequality.
In fact, it might be that even when the loan is made -- as a true loan, not "if you don't repay me it's all right" -- the knowledge that it will be repaid eliminates the inequality at the start. It's not a gift at all, but a contract, and a contract can only be made by equals.
God God's-self is the model here, according to the Talmud. Each day, God grants us life and bounty to use, in a relationship of covenant. Rather than feel only inferior to the Creator, this covenant enables us to be God's partners.
I learned this lesson from Jeffrey Dekro, founder of the Shefa Fund and creator of TZEDEC, the Tzedek/Justice Economic Development Campaign, now housed at the Jewish Funds for Justice. (Read more here.) I have seen this kind of lending take place today, and seen how much the borrower-who-will-repay has self-respect in the process. And respect too, and admiration. in the eyes of the lender. I've told one story in a previous sermon about this, which you can read here in my write-up of an interview with a street-cart entrepreneur I met in New York City several years ago.
In Parashat Re'eh, there is both lending and giving. Today, we talk only the language of giving. Even when we give, we should bear in mind the lessons we can apply from the idea of the free loan.