For about 20 years, since before I was married, I worked very long and hard at my own business. It’s a modest business, a simple retail store. For all those years, I’ve been putting away as much as I could to save for my children and their families. Of course, I’ve had to dip into my savings for expenses and to purchase a house, but there was a significant amount left.
About two years ago, my sister came to me asking if she could borrow a large sum of money. Her husband was laid off because of the recession, and they dug themselves into a deep hole of debt. I spoke to my wife about our possible options, and ultimately, we decided that refusing to lend them the money could easily sever the family ties. We trusted my sister to pay us back, but we mentally prepared ourselves to lose the money in order to ensure we would not have hard feelings if they would be unable to repay the loan.
Fast forward to this year. My sister and brother in-law are back on their feet, b”H, but it doesn’t look like we are getting our money back. Even worse, my sister won’t even look me in the eye. She is lashing out at me at family functions, and refuses to talk to my wife. This is exactly what I wanted to avoid when I agreed to extend the loan.
It seems she is embarrassed by herdebt, and it must be causing her to cover it with anger. I’ve told her I let it go. Why can’t she?
At a Loss
Dear At a Loss,
I commend you for your generosity, selflessness and extremely mature approach in dealing with this uneasy situation. In general, and definitely in our society, people assume that they may and should do whatever is necessary to retrieve money or possessions which are rightfully due to them. As Jews, however, we must always remember that we are Gd’s children, and conduct ourselves with a special standard of dignity. Even when a Jew is mistreated or taken advantage of, he must choose an appropriate, dignified response.
Lending money is itself a noble act and a great mitzvah, and the value of the mitzvah is exponentially greater when there is a reasonable chance that the loan will never be repaid. Few people would go so far as to forgive a loan for the sake of maintaining peace in their family, and your and your wife’s decision to waive your sister’s loan will undoubtedly earn you a very special place in the world to come. (As an aside, it must be emphasized that whenever one lends money, it is advisable to for both parties to sign a written contract stating the particulars of the loan, in case questions or disputes arise later.)
Turning our attention to your question, my guess is that your sister is acting as she is because of strong pangs of guilt. It seems that she finds it difficult to truly believe that you have fully waived the loan, and she does not plan on repaying it in the near future or at all. And thus, with her financial situation stabilizing, she feels guilty. When she sees you, all that registers in her mind is that she is a sinful debtor. This evokes very hard feelings, which she resents.
One solution would be to arrange a peaceful time and place where you could sit with your sister and explain clearly that although you lent the money expecting it to be returned, and you would still happily receive it if she does repay the debt, nevertheless, you are not judging her and will love her all the same even if she does not. Alternatively, express to her in the clearest possible terms that while you expect the money back at some point, your relationship is far more important to you, and thus regardless of what happens with the loan, you would like very much to remain on good terms. Make it clear that you harbor no hard feelings, and that you and your wife are committed unconditionally to maintaining a warm, loving relationship with her and her husband.
Hopefully, once she realizes that you are sincere in your desire to maintain a warm relationship regardless of whether she repays the loan, she will no longer feel uneasy around you. And, your sincerity might also arousewithin her a desire to reciprocate your loving kindness, and thus cause her to rethink her decision not to repay the money you lent her.
May Hashem grant you and your family His blessings of peace and prosperity, and allow you to continue your chosen path of selflessness and
the unbridled pursuit of harmony in
With warm wishes and
Rabbi Yechiel Elbaz