The Torah in Parashat Mishpatim presents several laws relevant to the situation of a loan, including the prohibition of “lo tiheyeh lo ke-nosheh” (22:24), forbidding the lender to act “like a creditor” towards the borrower. Rashi explains: “…if you know that he does not have [money with which to repay the loan], do not think of him as though you lent to him, but rather as though you did not lend to him. Meaning, do not embarrass him.”
According to Rashi, this prohibition forbids causing humiliation to a borrower who is unable to repay his loan. The Torah requires the lender in such a situation to act towards the borrower as if there is no outstanding debt, rather than applying pressure or otherwise causing the borrower embarrassment.
It has been noted that the implications of this law extend far beyond the narrow context of the relationship between a lender and borrower. Very often, a debtor who is incapable of repaying the loan had borrowed money irresponsibly, taking the loan without any strategy for repaying the money in the future. Indeed, the Mishna in Pirkei Avot (2:9) tells that Rabban Yochanan ben Zakai asked his students to identify the single most “evil path from which a person should distance himself,” and one student, Rabbi Shimon ben Netanel, pointed to the practice of borrowing money without repaying. It has been suggested that Rabbi Shimon’s answer is consistent with his remark mentioned earlier in that same Mishna, in response to Rabban Yochanan’s question, “Which is the approach to which a person should adhere?” Rabbi Shimon responded, “Ha-ro’eh et ha-nolad” – the ability to foresee the consequences of one’s actions. The opposite of this quality is reckless borrowing, accumulating debt without a plan of how to repay it.
It emerges, then, that at least in some instances, a borrower who cannot repay his loan finds himself in this situation because of his own irresponsible actions. And yet, despite his guilt in causing this unfortunate circumstance, his debtor is required by the Torah to avoid humiliating him. The Torah commands us to preserve the dignity of even those who are guilty of grave mistakes, and even when those mistakes have caused us harm. Legitimate grievances do not justify subjecting somebody to embarrassment and humiliation. The borrower in this situation made a mistake in the past which can no longer be reversed, and so the lender is not entitled to vent his frustration by embarrassing the borrower. This command teaches us that people’s past mistakes do not justify humiliating them, even for those who have been hurt by those mistakes. We are to be patient, tolerant and forgiving, and allow people to recover and grow from their mistakes without suffering embarrassment.