This week’s Torah portion is Mishpatim, which contains one of the three biblical sources for the mitzvah of charitable lending: “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 -- similar verses can be found at Leviticus 25:36 and Deuteronomy 23:20).
The Jewish tradition has always understood lending to the poor on an interest-free basis as an affirmative obligation, indeed as a form of tzedakah superior to giving “handouts,” because lending promotes self-sufficiency while maintaining the dignity of the borrower. This tradition was most famously articulated by Maimonides in the Mishneh Torah, his 12th-century codification of Jewish law: “The highest degree of charity, exceeded by none, is that of a person who assists a poor Jew by providing him with a gift or (interest-free) loan, or by making him self-sufficient so that he does not need to again ask for financial assistance from others” (Mishneh Torah, Book of Agriculture, Laws of Charity, 10:7).
Rabbi David Glanzberg-Krainin, my synagogue's rabbi when I lived in Philadelphia, expressed a beautiful insight from Rashi about this week’s Torah portion. 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, recession, unemployment, displacement.
Rashi has another beautiful insight: The word "interest" teaches that a loan can cause a great wound in a person's life. The Hebrew word neshech (interest) is from the same root as nashach (bite). A snake bite 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.
I am proud to share our Jewish community just celebrated the 7th anniversary of the Jewish Free Loan of Greater Portland (JFLGP). This no-interest loan program started with $85,000 in financial support from the Blumauer-Bloom Fund and the Nettie Rosen Director Free Loan Endowment Fund. Today, with the generosity of donors across the community, we now have over $283,500 in total assets with $170,000 currently available for loans. Our goal is to grow the fund to $1 million so we can expand our loan offerings and amounts.
In these seven years, we have provided over $238,500 in loans to 88 households. Loans are made for a variety of purposes including: emergency expenses, wedding costs, college scholarships, attorney fees, summer camp tuition, and so much more. We have a 99% repayment rate on these loans. In just the past six months we have made 20 loans for $70,000.
We are grateful to Les Gutfreund, Chair, Ben Winkleblack, Jewish Federation Chief Financial Officer, and the Jewish Free Loan committee for their hard work in reviewing loan applications and making the process as positive as possible.
Sad and hard to believe that next Friday will mark the one-year anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. When the war broke out our Jewish community responded. We are grateful for your support and for what we could do to assist those fleeing.
Next Friday, February 24, Jewish Federations from across the country are joining with the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) for a “Shabbat for Ukrainian Jews.” As we celebrate Shabbat collectively that day, we encourage you to incorporate these Shabbat blessings and reflections on the difficulties still facing the Jews in Ukraine.
In Turkey, the relief efforts continue. Our community has already sent over $20,000 to our partners in the region to buy needed humanitarian supplies. Here is a short video from our partner, the JDC, on the ground in Turkey.
Mazal tov to Mira Hayward, daughter of State Senator Elizabeth Steiner, for winning Jeopardy! twice last week. You can find her episodes on YouTube.
Do not forget to nominate an outstanding Jewish communal professional for the Laurie Rogoway Outstanding Jewish Professional Award. Nominations are due at end of the month.
Yesterday, several of my colleagues and I met with news anchors, managers, producers, and other professionals at KGW-TV. The station is reaching out to various community groups to learn more about who they are, what they do, and ways to incorporate this knowledge in their news coverage. Anchor Brenda Braxton basically interviewed us so the KGW team could learn more about the Jewish community. It was a very positive experience!
Let me close with this. Last Sunday, 113 million people watched the Super Bowl, the third most viewed television program in history. Whether you agreed with the holding call at the end, it really was a great game. But what happened afterwards was far more valuable.
First, James Bradberry, the Philadelphia defender on the holding call at the end of the game admitted that he held the receiver. How often do we see this type of honesty on the playing field at any level? He hoped the referee would miss the penalty but understood that the proper call was made. And his teammates, right after a tough loss in the Super Bowl, all publicly said that one play does not win or lose a game.
Second, and others have written extensively about this, Jalen Hurts, quarterback for the Eagles, made a remarkable statement at the post-game press conference. When I heard him say the words I wanted to reach through the screen and hug him. In six words he provided one of life’s greatest lessons – “You either win or you learn.”
I loved what he said. Understanding that winning is not everything and losing is an opportunity, Hurts continued, “You want to cherish these moments with the people that you’ve come so far with. You know, your family, loved ones, teammates, peers, everyone that you do it with and do it for.”
Being gracious in defeat is the epitome of unselfishness.