Friday, 1 February, 2019 - 12:12 pm

It is a beautiful law, recorded in Mishpatim:

When you lend money to my people, to the poor man among you, do not press him for repayment. Do not take interest from him.

If you take your neighbor's [night] garment as security [for a loan], you must return it to him before sunset. For this alone is his covering, the garment for his skin. With what shall he sleep? Therefore, if he cries out to Me, I will listen, for I am compassionate. 

There are 613 mitzvot in the Torah. Most of them are recorded without an explicit reason, especially not when the rationale is quite self-evident. The Torah, for example, never tells us why not to murder, or steal, or kidnap, or help the needy.

Yet, here there is an exception to the rule. The Torah could have concluded the mitzvah with the words, “you must return it to him before sunset.” We would have understood the reason. The poor man, or woman, needs it for nighttime. Yet the Torah decided to presents the reason, with much fanfare and drama completely unusual when describing a Torah law, Why?

Because this law is unique from all the laws of the Torah. It is in this mitzvah that the Torah is establishing a new type of law, one that is not called for legally, unless one can cultivate the art of empathy.

Legally we can argue against this mitzvah.

A man comes to me and asks me to lend him money. If he would have asked me for a gift, that’s fine. But he requested a loan and he obliged himself to pay it back. Payback time comes, and he violated his commitment. So I demand security from him on the loan. I want him to get me the money by hook or by crook, so take the one thing he owns—a night garment. Does it hurt? Of course. That’s the point. I want him to get me back my money, and until then, he does not get back the garment. I did not steal this garment from him; he gave it to me, as part of his moral obligation and commitment to pay me back.

By returning his night garment to him each night, after sunset, I will actually undermine my chances of getting my money, as he has no urgent fire burning under his feet to prompt him to act swiftly. For at night, I am returning his night garment to him. Is it not fair for me to keep this garment until I get my money?

Legally, this is an argument. Hence, the Torah is compelled in this situation to do something it rarely does. It asks you to emphasize with this person; it asks of you to put yourself into his or her situation and appreciate what they are going through.  It does not justify their actions, or negligence, or misconduct. Maybe he has come to rely on others too much.

But all the Torah says is this: “For this alone is his covering, the garment for his skin. With what shall he sleep?”

We know that legally this may not be an argument. But the Torah says I need you to experience for a few moments the end-result. This is his only garment. You can take it from him and claim you are right. But the bottom line is, “With what shall he sleep?” 

The cold will devastate him during the nighttime!

The poor man is going to cry to G-d. I know I am responsible to pay my loans. But I have one question, it is an existential one. I and he are both humans. Why does he get to have a bed, and I don’t? To be a Jew, the Torah says, I need to be able to be attentive each day and night to this question. Or as the Talmud puts it: Rabbi Yochanan said that Jerusalem was destroyed because people insisted on enforcing their rights based on Torah law, rather than accepting the concept of going beyond the letter of the law.

How relevant this is to our lives.

You are having a dispute with your brother, or your sister, or your partner or your friend, or your employee. You want to take away from them what they think is theirs, or what they claim is theirs, or what they, in their delusions, have decided is theirs.

Legally, you are right. Rationally, you may be right as well. You can do what you got to do, and go home with a clear conscience.

But sometimes, you have to listen to these words: “For this alone is his covering, the garment for his skin. With what shall he sleep?”

This does not mean you are wrong. It means that you, and I, must cultivate the art of empathy. I need to understand and appreciate what this person is going through, even if he or she is wrong; even if they made the wrong decisions; their behavior was irresponsible, or negligent. That may all be true. And yet, before I make my final decision, I just need to consider one question: “With what shall he sleep?” What will this do for him or her? No, this does not mean you shall allow people to manipulate you, cheat you, and lie to you. You should protect yourself and not allow others to utilize your goodness and decency as an invite to hurt you. What it does mean is this: never ever allow “justice” to blind you to the experience of another human being. Have the courage and dignity, to consider the fate of the other person, the experience of the other person, and make a decision from a place of empathy, not just cold justice.

Fiorello LaGuardia (1882-1947) was Jewish, yet as many a Jew of his generation, he chose not to wear his Jewish heritage on his sleeve. In fact, he allowed the public to identify him as Italian. When issues of Jewish interest came up in New York or national politics, however, the "Little Flower" was an ardent advocate for Jewish rights. As mayor of New York, he was one of Hitler’s most outspoken opponents.

LaGuardia was born in Greenwich Village in 1882 to Achille Luigi Carlo LaGuardia, a Catholic, and Irene Luzzato Coen, who had been raised in an observant Jewish home in Trieste, Italy. In his day, he was popular for riding in fire trucks with firefighters, joining police officers on their beats and taking orphaned children to baseball games.

One icy, bone-chilling night in January 1935, during the depths of the Great Depression, Mayor LaGuardia arrived at a night court in one of the poorest areas in the city. He told the judge to take the night off and he presided over the court.

A short time later, an old woman dressed in threadbare clothing stood before him, on a charge of stealing a loaf of bread.

“Did you steal the bread?” he asked. She said she did and explained that her daughter’s husband had run out on the family, that her daughter was sick and that her two grandchildren had nothing to eat. They would die from starvation if she had not shoplifted the loaf of bread.

Turning to the shopkeeper, he asked that given these circumstances, did he really want to press charges. The shopkeeper felt sorry for the woman but told the Mayor this is a bad neighborhood and that this woman needs to be punished to set an example for everyone else.

Mayor LaGuardia had a dilemma. Under the law, the woman was guilty and would have to be punished. But given her reason for committing the crime, to punish her would also be an injustice.

The text-book penalty for shoplifting was ten dollars or ten days in jail. What would you do if you were the judge? What did LaGuardia do? He fined the woman ten dollars. “Justice is justice,” he claimed. A thief must be fined.

But he did something which stunned the courthouse: LaGuardia took out a ten dollar bill from his wallet and gave it to the woman to pay her fine.

Then he looked around the crowded, bustling courtroom and fined everyone there 50 cents for living in a city in which a grandmother had to steal a loaf of bread to feed her grandchildren. He directed the bailiff to collect the fines and hand the money to the defendant.

The total collected came to $47.50 including the 50 cents willingly paid by the shopkeeper. The poor woman who was led to court to face charges was overwhelmed. She just received a gift of 47.50. After everyone had paid the fine, they gave Mayor LaGuardia a standing ovation.

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Yoseph Geisinsky


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