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96http://www.beth-israel.org/blog/2012/05/Rabbi-Lyon%27s-Blog---05_11_2012
Rabbi Lyon's Blog - 05_11_2012
05/10/2012 07:00 AM Posted by:

From the Desk of Rabbi David Lyon
May 13, 2012

 

I haven’t written on the subject of Pay Day loans in four years. Yet, local news reports that the problems Pay Day loan stores create for high risk borrowers persist. This week’s Torah portion speaks to the issue because it’s all about debt and enslavement. We learn in Behar (Leviticus 25:1-26:2) that unsettled debts were once resolved through service of the debtor to the creditor. A person became a slave only to satisfy his obligations. The indentured slave was physically bound to serve his master’s needs. The relationship was concluded when the debt was settled or until the year of release.

                The relationship between debtor and creditor was also protected by moral boundaries. Torah says to the (Jewish) slave, “You shall make no idols,” in order that one should not say, “Since my master is a non-Jew (not bound by Torah), I will be like him; since he worships idols, I will be like him…” The slave wanted leniency and he sought it through abandonment of his own faith. But, the rabbis asked, “At what price?” Would the slave trade his faith for earthly rewards and immediate gratification? The rabbis pointed to the last part of Behar, where we read, “Ani Adonai,” I am the Lord, to which Rashi (the great commentator of the 11th century), adds, “who is faithful to pay you your reward.” The indentured slave who protects his faith in God, and spurns his master’s rituals will be amply rewarded by God.

                This textual analysis empowered slaves to hold fast to Torah and the promise that God would reward them. The period of their servitude would not be made easier by bowing to false gods or tolerating immoral practices. Slavery as Torah described it, and slavery as our country once knew it, are over. But, the plight of debtors, today, has rendered our Torah portion remarkably relevant. Today, our ethical imperative is not religiously biased. We have a moral obligation to see that Torah law serves all people, Jew and non-Jew.

                The mortgage crisis lingers, but the real debtor crisis is the insidious “pay-day” loan system that proliferates in our country, and most notably in Texas. This is the system that accepts a promise to pay for an advance on one’s paycheck. With “easy” cash in hand, borrowers open themselves up to exorbitant fees, and high-cost loans, which they are rarely able to pay off without risking additional financial burdens. The web of debt begins with a small loan to overcome a short-term crisis or even some personal financial mismanagement. But, it escalates so quickly that the debtor cannot pay back the loan or escape it by any means. Constantly caught in a cycle of debt, they are dependent on their lenders for extended periods of time, even years.

                While high-risk borrowers will always pay higher interest and fees, it should happen in a debtor-creditor relationship that serves its purpose and then ends. The rabbis’ question, “At what price?” is still the leading question. Should the debtor be enslaved without any protections? Should the creditor set the terms that extend for years and well beyond the principal amount of the loan? God isn’t going to pick up the balance due, but God’s teachings command us to set reasonable terms so that a human being who accepts the terms of his debt does not also have to sell his soul. That’s the rabbis’ point; the soul belongs to God who gave it and is not the possession of any other human being. Make a businessman’s profit, but settle the debt and return the dignity and human potential to the person to whom it was given by God.

                Then, the words of Torah are made real and the very symbol of America’s freedom found in Torah this week rings true, (Leviticus 25:10), “You shall proclaim liberty throughout the land for all its inhabitants.”

                From my family to yours, Shabbat Shalom.

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