Mishpatim

By Rabbi Jamie Hyams

There is an old saying attributed to St. Ignatius, “Pray as if everything depends on God, act as if everything depends on you.” Our Torah portion, Mishpatim, lays out laws of responsibility “ben adam l’havero,” from one person to another. It is a manual on how to maintain a caring, just, and functional society. We learn how we should treat an indentured servant when they come to the end of their period of service; we learn about the concept of restitution when one person’s actions lead to the harm or death of another; and we learn a bit of corporate responsibility (perhaps PG&E should take heed) when we read, “When a fire is started and spreads to thorns, so that stacked, standing, or growing grain is consumed, he who started the fire must pay restitution.”

Of the laws given this week, one particularly resonates with me. “If you lend money to My people, to the poor among you, do not act toward them as a creditor; exact no interest from them.”

In addition to my rabbinic roles, I work for Hebrew Free Loan, which serves Northern California. (It is also the sister agency of Jewish Free Loan in Los Angeles as well as 50 other Jewish free loan agencies in America and abroad.) Hebrew Free Loan was founded on the idea that sometimes we need a little help from our community to meet life’s challenges and take advantage of life’s opportunities. For 127 years, Hebrew Free Loan has been lending money at 0% interest for emergencies, student loans, business loans and expenses, and many other needs.

When the events of October 7th unfolded, I felt helpless and scared, wanting to help but not knowing what to do. Hebrew Free Loan’s Israeli counterpart, Ogen, was flooded with emergency loan requests. While Ogen is the largest free loan agency in the world, they did not have the resources to meet the overwhelming need of $100M in loan requests to date.

In a moment of visionary leadership, the International Association of Jewish Free Loans, spearheaded by New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and 14 other free loan agencies across the country, raised $3.4M in loan capital, which is now being lent to Israelis, interest-free. The funds provided are helping Ogen offer interest-free loans of up to 60,000 shekels (approximately $15,500) to as many Israelis in need as possible.

In moments of great turmoil, one can wait for someone else to do something or one can act. Pirkei Avot 1:17 teaches, “Study is not the most important thing, but actions.” It was a proud moment when on the cusp of history, the boards of Jewish free loan societies across the country voted to act and do what was in their power to lend whatever they could spare or raise to Ogen to support Israelis in their moment of need. “Pray as if everything depends on God, act as if everything depends on you.”

I wish you a peaceful and restorative Shabbat. When the new week begins, let us act as if everything depends on us, because it does.

Shabbat Shalom.