A friend of mine told me that he recently had his credit card stolen. He didn’t report it because the thief was spending less than my friend used to. So goes the old joke.

The Midrash relates: “When the Holy One took the children of Israel out of Egypt, He said, ‘I am taking you out of Mitzrayim on the condition that you do not lend money to each other with interest.’” Why did Hashem make the Exodus from Egypt reliant upon the observance of the mitzvah of not loaning funds with interest?

Pharaoh proclaimed: “Come, let us outsmart the children of Israel, lest they increase …” (Exodus 1:10) and thus began the enslavement of the Jews in Egypt. The Midrash explains that Pharaoh found a cunning way to trick the Jews into bondage. The Egyptian king himself began laboring energetically with tools and asked the children of Israel to work alongside him. They joined the king’s efforts motivated by kindness and appreciation.

After proving the abilities of his Jewish volunteers, Pharaoh stepped away and appointed taskmasters to demand that they manufacture a quota of bricks. This sly plan of Pharaoh is deduced from the Torah’s use of the expression peh’rach for the “hard labor” that Egypt made the Jews endure, as peh’rach can also be translated as “smooth talk.” So the Jews were lulled into oppression.

The Torah teaches, “And when your brother becomes impoverished, and he stretches out his hand with you, you shall strengthen him … and he will live with you. Do not take interest, or ‘neshech,’ or usury from him ... and you shall fear your G-d and your brother will live with you.” (Leviticus 25:35-36)

In Exodus 22:24, Rashi explains that interest is referred to in Hebrew as “neshech,” a word meaning “bite.” This is because usury is like the bite of a snake. The serpent makes a small wound in a person’s foot, and the victim doesn’t feel anything. Suddenly, the venom spreads and swells to the top of his head. Likewise, interest takes its toll little by little and goes unnoticed, until the victim unwittingly has given over a great deal of money.

Pharaoh deceived the innocent Jews into entering slavery, and usury deceives the innocent borrower into handing over their hard-earned money. By agreeing to observe the mitzvah of not lending money on interest, the children of Israel were worthy of redemption.

Rabbi Joseph Kirsch is associate director of spiritual living at Menorah Park in Beachwood.

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