Don't Worry-Be Giving
Don’t be a “bli’yal” doesn’t have quite the same ring as “don’t be a jerk,” but in the Torah’s language, there’s a connection. Bli’yal is a strange word that appears a fair amount in the Torah, usually meaning something like a good for nothing or useless person. It appears twice in our parshah this week in very instructive ways.
It is used first to describe the abhorrent people in a city who end up being the root cause of its eventual condemnation and destruction. They are those that incite others to worship foreign Gods, a clear no-no in the biblical realm. Then later, it appears as a very negative characteristic of a certain type of person (Deuteronomy 15:9):
“Beware lest you harbor the base thought, “The seventh year, the year of remission, is approaching,” so that you are mean and give nothing to your needy kin—who will cry out to יהוה against you, and you will incur guilt.”
So what is it? A person or a characteristic? Maybe both.
There is an important principle of justice in our portion this week that a loan gets remitted every 7th year. This, in theory, would allow the indebted person a chance to get back on their feet. Much ink has been spilled on this topic that is certainly worthy of a deep dive.
For our purposes here, the Torah is anticipating a person that would normally lend but then might be reluctant to do so nearer to that 7th year because hey, they won’t get the return on their loan. Pretty clearly, the Torah warns against this type of mindset. It is translated here as “harboring the base thought,” but in the Hebrew it is written as having this “bli’yal-ness in your heart.”
The commentators offer many interpretations to understand this word and its etymology. More interesting I think is a particular comment from the Alshikh, one of the great masters of Kabbalah. He focuses on the beginning and ending of this verse and its theme of “guarding yourself” to make sure this doesn’t happen and then the “sin being within you” as the person who has this “bli’yal-ness.”
What is it specifically that makes this mindset? He argues that it’s particularly destructive because:
it starts as a thought, then it becomes a word, and then finally it translates into action of not actively helping your people that are in need. This is the way of the evil inclination.
Then he goes even further.
Not only will it prevent you from giving to those in need but even when you do give, you wonder, shouldn’t they just enslave themselves in order to make their own money.
It’s the “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” equivalent in Torah.
When you’ve acted like this in his eyes, you’ve removed the godliness that this person was imbued with. This is reprehensible. It’s also more a reflection of your own spiritual malnourishment and why the verse ends with “the sin in you” because ultimately, that which you try to mete out is given back to you by God.
I thought about this in relation to the discourse around the loan forgiveness that came out this week. Maybe there are fair economic arguments to make against loan forgiveness. Yet the way in which those opinions have been shared this week has been awful. The lack of compassion and kindness makes me wonder what’s really happening inside those folks that are anti-loan forgiveness.
It gets us back to this basic idea that weaves together the fabric of our society. Don’t be a jerk. Or, in the words of the Torah, “don’t be a “bli’yal.” Treat others with respect. Help them when they need. Fight against your worse angels. Always understand that every person has godliness in them.
Shabbat Shalom and Happy Weekend