TAKING MONEY SERIOUSLY*
Now you shall love HaShem your God … with all your possessions. (Devarim 6:5)
There are those whose money is dearer to them than their own bodies. (Berachos 61b)
DESIRE BEGETS DESIRE
Do not lend against interest, for it gobbles up the borrower’s wealth. Do not bloat yourself at his expense when you lend him food (Vayikra 25:17).
This is a loose translation of the verse that prohibits taking interest from a fellow Jew. It is not a particularly good translation; it is really more of a paraphrase. But it does try to capture the Torah’s disgust at the usurer. The word for lend against interest—nachash– literally means to bite, and as such conjures up the picture of the snapping, rending predator. The word for bloat–marbis—describes the gloating money-bags who fattens himself on someone’s hunger pangs.
What is wrong with taking interest? All of us can understand why we ought not to take advantage of our fellow’s misery by lending to him at unconscionably high rates. That is usury and would be condemned in any enlightened society. But what is wrong with charging a reasonable amount for the use of our resources? Why can we, without raising anyone’s eyebrows, rent out our homes, our cars or our tools, but not our money? What underlies the difference?
The Torah’s term for money is kesef. The word derives from the root kosof–to crave. Every other object in the world has intrinsic value. It is what it is and needs nothing external to give it validity and standing. Only money has its significance defined solely in terms of what it can buy. Postulate an empty store and you may as well throw your wealth to the winds [unclear]. Money can fulfill desires, or it can do nothing at all. At the end of the day, it is no more and no less than a solid chunk of wanting. It is desire made tangible.
Interest, which is nothing more than money begetting money, is ultimately craving begetting craving. This the Torah refuses to sanction. Certainly there is no intention to crimp the normal, and in itself legitimate, development of commerce. Obviously, people must be able to raise cash, and where capital is otherwise simply not attainable, the mechanism that makes possible the equivalent of taking interest–the heter iskah–is appropriate. But not lending for lending’s sake. Not a prostitution of the faculty for infinite longing with which God has endowed us. For a prostitution it would be. Let us explain.
Why, asks R’ Tzadok HaKohen of Lublin, is man, who in his physiology is so similar to animals, so different from them when it comes to over-indulging? Animals are not as a rule sybarites. They mate as the instinct to propagate the species demands; they sleep as their body craves rest; they hunt and feed as their need for food makes itself felt. There is no ambition beyond this.
How different we are! How fiercely do our urges drive us! Why are just we, in all of God’s wondrous world, so prone to excess? Because, R’ Tzadok teaches, we are not animals. Our agenda goes beyond the filling of our physical needs, the assuaging of our hunger pangs, the perpetuation of our kind. David sang of a soul thirsting for You, of flesh pining for You (Tehillim 63:2). To long for the ever-unattainable, the absolute beyond, that requires a faculty for infinite desire. There is never to be sufficiency, never absolute fulfillment.
There is always more that we want. And more. And more. And then some more. And when we degrade this faculty by permitting it to focus upon the physical, we are prostituting the most precious of the gifts with which God has endowed us.
And this the Torah will not tolerate. Let desire not beget desire. Let money not breed money. There are better ways to use the boundless longings that animate our souls.
*Note: Original Hebrew and Aramaic text which appears in the book has been translated into English and footnotes have been removed for brevity.