Forgiveness of Debts

This Dvar Torah was written by Rabbi Dr. Bradley Shavit Artson, who holds the Abner and Roslyn Goldstine Dean’s Chair of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies and is Vice President of American Jewish University in Los Angeles. It is slightly edited for clarity.

Photo by Jeb Buchman on Unsplash

“In releasing the land, our finances, and our fellows to freedom, we free ourselves as well, and this freedom ripples out in expansiveness and life.”

The new month of Elul [falling this year on Wednesday night this coming week] famously opens us to a time of renewed intimacy.
As we gear up for the Yamim Noraim, the holiest days of the year [known as the High Holy Days], we enter into the holy of holies of the Jewish heart.
The weekly Torah reading, Re’eh, follows a similar trajectory, detailing all the ways we can affirm our intimacy with holiness.
We are offered a choice, between blessing and curse. This choice ripples through descriptions of the sanctuary and its service, ways to choose what is right and good in our eating, our serving true prophets, and prioritizing God in our tithing, our calendar, and our labor relations.
This Torah portion expands upon the concept of Shmita, the recurrent cycle of seven years during which we allow the land to rest. Just as the Jewish people are commanded to rest on the seventh day, so too the land of Israel is offered a chance to rest, recalibrate, and re-center.
The expansion of the Shmita concept in this section of D’varim / Deuteronomy is one of taking a brilliant environmental piece of legislation, affirming that relational dance between the Land and the people, and then overlapping a layer of social justice as an integral part of that concern.
Even the way the topic is launched reveals that shift of focus: “Every seventh year you shall practice remission of debts.”
Its first expression is not with the soil and our relationship to the earth, but rather the unequal distribution of wealth, and rebalancing the bonds that connect the lender and the debtor, the rich and the poor.
The Torah moves to assert that social equity is no less a Shmita concern than its ecological priorities.
The portion articulates a lofty vision of an end to poverty: “There should be no needy among you…(Deut. 15:4).
Shortly thereafter, the Torah concedes that that dream, however worthy to keep as our focus, is unlikely.
In the meantime, we must keep our hearts open to the poor, and not pervert the arrival of Shmita into an excuse to close our hearts and our wallets toward their sustenance.
For there will never cease to be needy ones in your land, which is why I command you: open your hand to the poor and needy kin in your land (Deut. 15:11).”
Finally, that connection of Shmita to the welfare of the poor is extended to the wellbeing of Hebrew “slaves.”
The Shmita year is to mark their return to freedom and their release from indentured servitude. Just as the land is meant to rest, so too are our fellow citizens.
Slavery is not the normal condition; freedom is.
Remarkably, the Torah makes explicit that this right to liberty extends to male and to female slaves. It is the essence of the human condition.
We are cautioned not to be resentful that we might have squeezed more money out of our fields, or from our loans, or from our slaves.
Instead, the impulse to liberation embodied in Shmita bids us to also free our hearts from the stultifying anesthetic of greed and possession as our overwhelming focus.
In releasing the land, our finances, and our fellows to freedom, we free ourselves as well.
Says the Torah, this freedom ripples out in expansiveness and life: “Moreover, the Lord your God will bless you in all you do (Deut. 15:18).”
Each Israelite is entrusted with land to farm and take care of, and simultaneously must recognize, s/he is not the actual owner— it belongs to G!D. Therefore, the concept of private property is upheld, and the necessity of maintaining social justice and social balance as well.
Likewise, each Israelite may be sold as an indentured servant, and simultaneously, the master must recognize that s/he is not the actual owner— the servant is an equal human being in the eyes of G!D. Again, the concept of private property is upheld, and the necessity of maintaining social justice and social balance as well.
As in most of Torah, the middle way is almost always preferred.

In today’s world, how do you see these Torah concepts expressed in modern life and political thinking?
How would you apply these Torah values to contemporary issues?
Ask your rabbi or a local rabbi how they interpret these verses and what the commentators say.

Shabbat Shalom!