The Talmud is one of the most essential Jewish works. Its vast legal, moral and historical content is a backbone of Jewish life across the spectrum.

The Talmud places a lot emphasis on using the mind as a tool to connect with the divine, and thus spends much time churning through legal conundrums through a Jewish lens. 

Today, let’s briefly delve into this vast world of mind-exercises, and try to find a meaningful lesson which we can relate to on a more emotional and spiritual level as well.

The Talmudic tractate of ‘Bava Metzia’ discusses the laws of investing, lending and other monetary matters. It also discusses employee-employer relationships, including the laws of watchmen. 

While paid watchmen are fully responsible for the items they are charged with guarding, a watchman who is guarding an object as a favor to a friend, without charging for his services, is rarely held liable for damages to the item.

But what about an item being held as collateral against a loan? Is the lender responsible for damages to the item? After all, isn’t he simply doing the borrower a favor by lending him/her money? The lender gains very little, if nothing at all! (Keep in mind that charging interest is forbidden by Jewish law, so every loan is interest free).

In a curious twist, the Talmud actually places this individual - who is only 'watching' their friend's item as collateral for a (interest free!) loan - under the category of a paid watchmen.

But why? How unjust! This lender is doing a special Mitzvah by providing an interest-free loan to a friend. Why is he/she considered as if they were paid to guard the collateral?!

Let’s have a look at the deeper meaning of kindness and giving. 

The Torah has tremendous respect for the ways of the world. Though true happiness may come from being kind, caring and spiritually in tune, there is nonetheless a very strong respect in Jewish law for the rules of business and human nature. While kindness, giving, and sharing are tremendously important in Jewish law, they usually run a sort of parallel track to the business world. Being honest in business is one Mitzvah, and kindness and charity another. 

It is thus not often that Jewish law should have kindness penetrate down to the real world to the extent that we’d give kindness itself value in dollars and cents. 

But there is an exception. A case where an act of kindness is so powerful, so profound, that it reverberates throughout the human consciousness to the point where the giver, and not only the receiver, is utterly transformed by the experience.

This special case is when one helps a friend discover their own strengths and become independent, to the point when they themselves become strong and givers on their own. For example, helping someone not only with charity, but with a loan to set up their own business. This type of kindness is very different because, if you think about it, the giver doesn't get much direct pleasure from the experience. When we give a gift, we too feel good, as every decent human being derives pleasure in being seen as a kind, giving person.

But if we help somebody else discover themselves, with a loan for example, then it becomes much more about the receiver. This type of giving is unique precisely because the giver doesn't gain as much from it. This giving is so infinite, so sincere and special that it crosses all lines, transforming all those involved - the giver included (this truthfully is the case with all forms of kindness).

It is for this reason that a lender holding onto collateral is considered a paid watchman. What is his/her 'pay'? The tremendous gift which they receive by rediscovering themselves. This kindness is so potent that it is even given monetary value. For the giver is transformed to the extent that their gain is palpable, profound and very real - they are practically being 'paid' for the profound kindness which they did.

In this week's Torah portion we read about the Jews' coming to Egypt - from where they would only be freed after a bitter slavery two centuries later. Despite this, the Torah portion is called 'life'. Why? Because in Egypt they encountered new people, from different backgrounds, and for the first time started to inspire others, not only themselves. 

And precisely then, more than ever before, the Jews discovered the true meaning of life.

Rabbi Avrohom