In Hebrew there is an etymological connection between the words “peace” and “pay”. The root of each, shin lamed mem, has lent merit to the quip that “if it is not paid for there is no peace.” One cannot be shalem/whole or complete if one is in debt. Over the years I have certainly felt that unsettled sensation in the gut when the checks written have exceeded the money in the account. Peace returns if the next pay period arrives in time for all checks to clear the bank. The churning worsens when that does not happen and the overdraft and finance charges mount up and push me further and further behind.
Parashat Re’eh understands debt – both what it does to individuals and what it does to disrupt a society. It sees debt not just as a financial issue, but as a moral one. And while both lenders and borrowers are responsible for creating debt, our text encourages compassion and assistance to those who owe. This week’s sidra forces us to consider ways to prevent the more permanent injustices of a capitalistic system. To be certain, a biblical view doesn’t advocate doing away with either capitalism or a landowning class, but it tries to temper it and make us more responsive to the economic injustices that can arise. Combating damaging inequality requires systems that provide assistance to those most vulnerable.
The centerpiece of this effort, as discussed in Deuteronomy Chapter 15, is Shmita or the sabbatical year. As our current year, 5775, is such a year and will be ending in one month, it’s a good time to reflect on the concept.
Elsewhere in the Torah, observance of Shmita required we allow the land to rest every seventh year. Nothing got planted. People lived on the surplus and what grew naturally. The law provided for wise land management and was a great reminder that we are tillers and tenders of God’s earth. Our portion, however, focuses on debt forgiveness. (Shmita literally means “dropping” or “release”.) The seventh year was to feature remission of certain debts, not all, but enough to prevent an irreversible cycle of the rich becoming richer and the poor becoming poorer. “Every creditor shall remit the due that he claims from his fellow; he shall not dun his fellow or kinsman. (15:2)” There seemed to be a realization that periodic debt relief was essential to avoid a permanent underclass. While foreigners may have been in the land to engage in a commercial venture and would not be entitled to such relief, the debts of one’s kinsman were to be treated every seventh year in the category of tzedakah. A bad crop or a period of unemployment was to be met with understanding and assistance. Debt relief was an essential part of an ordered and righteous society.
What guided public policy in ancient days is no less relevant today. As millions of Americans remain “underwater” with mortgages, students struggle with massive loans, and medical bills can easily push families towards bankruptcy, our text reminds us that our voices, our votes, and our hearts need to be directed in a way that lifts others out of unsustainable and cyclical debt. Our local IAF organization, CONECT (Congregations Organized for a New Connecticut), has made predatory lending practices a focal issue of our advocacy with the state’s Attorney General. And front and center in the news this summer has been the volatile economic situation in Greece. Missing from much of the coverage has been the moral dimensions of the debt burden and its effect on the Greek people. Reducing the burden by cancelling some debt allows a much-needed chance at recovery and stabilization.
From the headlines to the parasha, we see on so many levels the connection between peace/shalom and the work to alleviate debt. As this shmita year ends and a new seven year cycle begins, may the conversation on debt forgiveness not drift into the background, but remain front and center in our public discourse.
Rabbi James Prosnit is the senior rabbi at Congregation B’nai Israel in Bridgeport, CT and a lecturer in Religious Studies at Fairfield University. Among numerous communal activities and interests he is chair of Bridgeport Prospers: A Cradle to Career Collective Impact Initiative and serves on the Board of Connecticut Against Gun Violence.