Erase everyone’s debt? Is the Torah serious about this? -J.

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The Torah Column is supported by a generous gift from Eve Gordon-Ramek in memory of Kenneth Gordon.


Re’eh

Deuteronomy 11:26–16:17


We are nearing the end of a shmita (sabbatical) in the Land of Israel. Many farmers took the opportunity to observe the commandment by leaving their land fallow, and stories of miracles associated with the practice proliferate in religious communities in Israel and the Diaspora.

Most of the laws relating to shmita are found in the Book of Bamidbar (Numbers) in the parashah of Behar. However, there is a lesser-known commandment involving the seven-year agricultural cycle that is presented in the current part of the Torah.

“After seven years you should have a shmita. This is the question of the shmita; any creditor shall withdraw his hand from his companion, he shall not hurry his companion and his brother, for that is called a shmita for God. (Deuteronomy 15:1)

In addition to the agricultural rules associated with shmita, there is another area in which the year itself brings with it a transformational reality in economic affairs. All loans are cancelled. Full stop. The verb lishmot implies a kind of stoppage or withdrawal. With land, that means letting the land rest and stopping agriculture. As far as credit is concerned, this means stopping cashing out loans.

What could be the connection between the two commandments?

It seems that the net effect of both is that they force all individuals to give up a sense of ownership, power and control. By forcing farmers to leave their land fallow, they are forced to remove their sense of ownership and all peoples become equal in the Land of Israel, with equal rights to enter and enjoy each other’s fields.

By instituting debt forgiveness, no one feels indebted to his neighbour. This should not be interpreted as Torah’s contempt for capitalism and a market economy. On the contrary, the fact that there is land ownership clearly indicates that private property is expected to be at the center of a Torah-centered economy.

What does exist is a social safety net that offers the economically disadvantaged the opportunity to reset and rehabilitate.

Anticipating the concern that members of society would have regarding their loans, the Torah addresses the potential reluctance of individuals to lend money to each other. “If there be a needy among your brothers at any of the gates of your cities which the LORD your God is giving you; do not harden your heart and do not close your hand towards your needy brother. You should open your hand and lend him everything he needs. (Deut. 15:7-8)

We are presented with a simple guideline to lend to others.

Understanding that not all positive commandments compel people to act, the Torah continues: “Beware, lest there be a negative thought in your heart, saying, ‘The seventh year draws near, the year shmita”, and your eye will look badly at your helpless brother and you will not give to him and he will call on God about you and you will bear a sin. (Deuteronomy 15:9)

The Torah understands that there is an economic disincentive to giving a loan to a poor person as the sabbatical year approaches. It is therefore emphasized that such an attitude is not only negative, but is considered a sin.

The Torah does more than just use a stick to enforce this commandment. There is also a carrot. “[B]Because of this, the Lord your God will bless you in all your actions and in all your undertakings. Not only would sinful behavior be avoided, but there is a reward promised for opening one’s heart to another Jew.

The poverty of a comrade creates an obligation for every member of the community with the resources to help.

Also, the discussion is about loans, not charitable donations. There are also obligations there, but the Torah wants to preserve the dignity of individuals by obliging Jews to grant loans, even when they risk never being repaid because the shmita year will erase the debt.

Lending to others within the community is certainly a widespread practice around the world. There are free Hebrew loan companies in most major communities, including the Bay Area.

The rabbis also developed a system to preserve a loan from being canceled by transferring the debt to an institution and away from an individual. Despite the current community effort to help the poor, there is a lesson for all of us: Creating opportunities for our fellow community members to uplift in times of difficulty is timeless.

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