The Torah in Parashat Re’ei presents the mitzva of shemitat kesafim, which requires canceling outstanding debts at the end of the shemitta year. In discussing this law, the Torah anticipates the natural reluctance of prospective lenders to grant loans as the shemitta year approaches, as they would, understandably, fear that the money would be lost. The Torah sternly admonishes prospective lenders not to harbor such thoughts, warning that if one denies a pauper’s request for a much-needed loan, “he will call out to the Lord about you, and you be guilty of sin” (15:9). Those with the ability to lend money are urged to generously grant loans to the needy even as the shemitta year approaches, and are promised great reward for these acts of kindness (15:10).
A creative reading of the Torah’s warning is offered by Rav Yaakov Tanenbaum, in his Shemen Afarsamon commentary. He notes Rashi’s comment to the opening verse of Sefer Vayikra, where Rashi asserts that the verb k.r.a. (“call”) is an expression of “chiba” – affection. When a person is described with this verb as calling out to another, it denotes feelings of warmth and fondness. If so, Rav Tanenbaum contends, then it seems difficult to understand why this word is used in reference to the pauper who was denied a loan and cries out to God, venting his grievance against a person who refused his request for help. Why would the broken, desperate pauper feel any feelings of love and affection as he expresses his anger towards those who refused to help him? Rav Tanenbaum answers this question by boldly asserting that the Torah speaks here of a righteous pauper who, despite his natural feelings of resentment towards the prospective lender, does not want that prospective lender to be punished on his account. He selflessly calls to God on behalf of the person who refused to help him, pleading that he not be punished for his cruelty. The Torah warns that despite the pauper’s prayers that the lender be forgiven, nevertheless, “ve-haya bekha cheit” – the lender deserves punishment for heartlessly refusing to help his impoverished fellow. Although the pauper piously forgives him and prays on his behalf, the person who denied his request will be held accountable.
This clever insight into the verse perhaps teaches that we must ensure to deal kindly and sensitively even with those people who easily forgive and tolerate wrongdoing. The fact that a person does not appear to be troubled by our behavior towards him or her – and may, in fact, not be troubled – does not absolve us of guilt for acting towards them in an inappropriate or inconsiderate manner.
The Rambam, in his well-known conclusion to Hilkhot Tuma’t Tzara’at, discusses the unique severity of lashon ha-ra – negative speech about other people – and points to the famous example of this sin found in the Torah: the lashon ha-ra spoken by Miriam about her brother, Moshe. Miriam was punished by being stricken with the tzara’at skin infection, despite several factors that seemingly mitigated the severity of her offense. The Rambam points to several mitigating factors, including the fact that Moshe was unaffected by what Miriam said. The Torah makes a point of informing us of Moshe’s unparalleled humility in the midst of the story of Miriam’s improper speech about him (Bamidbar 12:3), and the Rambam understood that this was mentioned to indicate that Moshe paid no attention whatsoever to the gossip spoken by Miriam. And yet, the Rambam writes, Miriam was severely punished for speaking inappropriately about her brother. Our responsibility to act properly towards other people is as much about refining our characters as it is about avoiding causing harm. We are to extend kindness and speak to and about people respectfully not only for their sake, but also for our own sake, as part of our lifelong process of developing a true Torah character.