The sages of Athens said to Rabbi Yehoshua ben Chananyah: “If a man lent money and was eventually forced to foreclose on the lien because the borrower defaulted, then why should he see fit to lend once more? Surely his experience must have taught him to avoid making loans!”

Rabbi Yehoshua countered: “A man went to the marsh and cut a first bundle of reeds. He attempted to lift it onto his shoulder but was unable. He then cut a second bundle and placed it atop the first, until another man might chance by and help him raise both bundles.”

[Since the reaper depended on help from others, he wisely prepared to make the most of the expected help and gain an additional bundle. Similarly, if a borrower defaults on a loan the lender may seek another more reliable borrower to lend money to, and profit1 from, so as to recoup his earlier losses.] (Gemara Bechorot 8b)

The Athenians’ riddle was actually a parable that concealed a challenge to the Jewish faith. Maharal explains that the Athenians were intimating that you Jews maintain that God rescued you from slavery in Egypt and gave you the Land of Israel, for which you were obliged to acknowledge His munificence and serve Him. But instead of willingly repaying your debt to God, you sinned and served false gods, and He was therefore compelled to evict you and reclaim the Land. How can you believe that ultimately He will emancipate you again from subjugation and grant you the Land once more?

Maharal elaborates that the Athenians conceived the people of Israel over their generations to be a single corporate entity. They therefore claimed that God would never grant Israel a second loan after their earlier default. Rabbi Yehoshua countered that a later generation should be likened to another man, distinct from the first: each generation is judged by God on its own merit, without regard to the faults of predecessors. He will entrust the Land to the sons knowing they may prove more faithful than their fathers.

Alternatively, according to the Vilna Gaon, the original loan is the Torah, more specifically those laws which are of Sinaitic origin. After the First Temple was destroyed because Israel failed to properly observe the Torah, the Jews adopted many preventive stringencies as barriers to protect the Sinaitic laws from violation (such as the Rabbinic proscription against eating fowl cooked with milk, intended to prevent people from inadvertent consumption of animal meat in milk, which is prohibited Biblically). Most Rabbinic institutions and decrees stem from that period. The Athenians were intimating that if the Jews could not repay the original loan, that is, if they failed to observe Biblical law, how could they assume – and how could God trust them to repay – a second loan, i.e. additional laws of Rabbinical origin?

The Vilna Gaon elucidates that the Rabbinic stringencies, rather than constituting an additional burden on top of Biblical law (like a second debt undertaken by a borrower who cannot even pay the first), are aids that facilitate observance of Biblical law. They should be compared to a loan that a borrower invests to generate an income, so that he can repay not only the latest loan but his previous debts as well.

 

1.       The Torah prohibits a Jew from charging interest to another Jew but permits lending to a gentile on interest (Devarim 23:20-21).

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