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On borrowing

I recently shipped my things from Singapore to Israel. From Haifa Port the Customs officer called Shelly, my wife, in order to understand why our shipment was so heavy but our tax declaration so low. What was my business importing so many worthless kilograms into Israel? Shelly explained that I was a rabbi and I owned many books. Ah, he sighed, and let it pass.

Somewhere between the publication of the Good Book and the creation of Facebook, I grew up in a vociferous family of readers. Most of the books we owned came from raiding local charity shops, but the better part of what we read came from the local public library. Our visits to the library tended to go in waves. For a while we would stay “on the wagon”, with a frequency of visits that easily fit within the three-week lending period. But then something would happen, life would get in the way, and our library books would become overdue.

And then, oh the shame and the guilt! And the fines! It was pennies per day plus extra for the reminder notices that would come through our letter-box. And the horror of facing the librarians in the knowledge that you had only found some of your books, whilst others were still missing! My face would blush scarlet; just thinking about it I still go red. It was an early lesson in procrastination that has scarred me until today. Thank heavens for the limit of the maximum fine! And the procedure of forgiving a book that had become permanently lost. But sometimes it meant we couldn’t visit the library for weeks! No wonder there are large gaps in my education!

I used to blame my mother for this but I understood very well that I had wholly inherited this trait from her at the age of 21. Sensible institution that they are, Cambridge University has a rule that no one can graduate and receive their degree if they have outstanding library fines. I finished my final exams and spent a full day in a walk of shame to eight different libraries: King’s College, the Classics faculty, the Theology faculty, and the University Library included. And by then the penny fines of my childhood had become greatly inflated into tens of pounds.

As an adult I have never lost the habit of buying books, and should really own shares in Amazon. I’m sure many of you are practical kindlers and I dabble too, but there’s nothing like a physical book, be it new or used. I don’t like kindle because it’s hard to share, but then I’m not great at sharing physical books either. I don’t know what’s worse: the pressure of reading what someone lends you and expects you to read, or letting someone “borrow” an old friend that most likely you will never see again. I am with Shakespeare when he writes in Hamlet: “Neither a borrower nor a lender be; for loan doth oft lose both itself and friend, and borrowing dulls the edge of husbandry.” Polonius may be talking to Laertes about money, but I think it applies to books as well.

There’s another type of borrowing in our Torah portion this week, Bo. Ahead of the tenth plague, in Exodus 11.2, God instructs Moses:

דַּבֶּר־נָ֖א בְּאָזְנֵ֣י הָעָ֑ם וְיִשְׁאֲל֞וּ אִ֣ישׁ ׀ מֵאֵ֣ת רֵעֵ֗הוּ וְאִשָּׁה֙ מֵאֵ֣ת רְעוּתָ֔הּ כְּלֵי־כֶ֖סֶף וּכְלֵ֥י זָהָֽב׃

Tell the people to borrow, each man from his neighbour and each woman from hers, objects of silver and gold.”

Rashi alludes to a discussion in the Babylonian Talmud (Berachot 9b) which questions the presence of the word “na” - please - in God’s instructions to Moses. Why would there be an awkwardness in this divine request to “borrow” one’s neighbour’s precious metals? Perhaps later when the Israelites enact, Rabbi Ami argues, because it was done against the will of the Egyptian lenders. And the Talmud, showing a full awareness of shyness, dispute against whose will the request was made. “Some say it was given against the will of the Egyptians, and some say it was given against the will of Israel.” In other words, maybe the Israelites were shy to ask their neighbours if they could borrow their gold. This may also be a reason for the gendered borrowing as well.

As we all know, once the tenth plague struck, the Israelites scarpered. No wonder the Egyptians chased after them as they glittered and glitzed into the night. And we may remember this at the end of Passover, when we celebrate Mimouna with a bed of lettuce strewn with golden coins - an opulent symbol of our new-found wealth. But did you also know that during Mimouna festival, Jews would dress as Muslims, often borrowing clothes from their Muslim neighbors? I assume that these were returned afterwards, but while the Ashkenazis have borrowed Mimouna from Sephardi and particularly Moroccan Jews, I for one don’t intend to give it back!

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