Here's what Rabbi David Glanzberg-Krainin wrote to the members of Beth Sholom Congregation in February, 2013:
This week is International Hebrew Free Loan Shabbat, a week to learn about and honor the work of Hebrew Free Loan Societies around the world. These non-profit Jewish community organizations raise funds and make confidential interest free loans to support Jews who are hoping to receive an education, have an emergency expense, or want to try to start a new business. The origins of Hebrew Free Loans are found in the verse from this week's Torah portion in Parashat Mishpatim: 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. (Exodus 22:24) The concept of free loans builds on Maimonides' teaching that the highest form of tzedakah is to help a person help him- or her-self.
There's a beautiful insight that Rashi makes in the language of the verse from our Torah reading this week. Rashi comments that the Torah's use of the words "My people" teaches that as we make individual tzedakah decisions, we should prioritize "my people," i.e. those closest to us. And Rashi continues that the words "among you" are meant to remind us that each of us should remember that our individual financial circumstances could change dramatically. None of us, Rashi is saying, is immune from the causes of poverty: Illness, war, recession, displacement-could happen to each of us-and we must recognize the humanity of those who are in need-because they, too, are created in the divine image.
Rashi has another beautiful insight: The word "interest" teaches that a loan can cause a great wound in a person's life. The word neshech (interest) is from the same root as nashach (bite). A snakebite begins as a little wound, but the wound can swell throughout a person's body. Similarly, interest can seem like a small percentage, but it mounts up and becomes a huge amount of money over time.
We should be very proud that Beth Sholom Congregation was the founding organization of the Hebrew Free Loan Society here in Philadelphia. Through the efforts of our Rabbi Emeritus Aaron Landes, through the generosity of Madlyn and Leonard Abramson, and through the hard work and vision of Bernard and Maria Granor, the Philadelphia Hebrew Free Loan Society has been in existence for close to 30 years. A strong core of volunteers under the leadership of Marshal and Tamar Granor continue to make sure that Jews have access to free loans to help them across important thresholds of their lives. Our Hebrew Free Loan Society has given out more than $2 million in loans over since its inception. A new fund to help small businesses get started has just been established. If you would like more information-either to donate, to volunteer, or to help individuals who need loans to get access to our Free Loan Society-please visit the Web page: www.hebrewfreeloanphila.org May each of us support the work of the Philadelphia Hebrew Free Loan Society, and the work of organizations that seek to preserve human dignity and therefore bring God's presence more fully into our world.