100% Shemita

7 Aug

There is no doubt, God thought of everything. 

At the end of every seven years you will celebrate the debt-remission year. And this is the idea of the debt-remission year (ve’zeh d’var haShemita): that every creditor shall cancel any debt owed by his neighbor and brother when God’s remission year comes around.  He shall not require payment from his neighbor or brother, because the LORD’s time for canceling debts has been proclaimed. You may require payment from a foreigner, but you must cancel any debt your brother owes you. (Deuteronomy 15:1-3) 

People work hard.  No doubt you have even heard people say, ” I am going to work to pay the mortgage.” In other words, work becomes one very long lifelong ordeal whose purpose, for many, is to pay off their accumulated debts.

Think about it.  How much of our occupational lives is focused on paying off debt! 

A poll of twentysomethings by USA TODAY (November 2006) and the National Endowment for Financial Education (NEFE) found that 60% feel they’re facing tougher financial pressures than did young people in previous generations. And 30% say they worry frequently about their debt.

“I have nightmares,” says Heather Schopp, 29, of Long Beach, Calif., who accrued $165,000 in student-loan debt to become a chiropractor. “I dream I’m on a hot-air balloon, hanging on for dear life.”

“This debt-for-diploma system is strangling our young people right when they’re starting out in life,” says Tamara Draut, author of Strapped: Why America’s 20- and 30- Somethings Can’t Get Ahead. “It’s creating a sense of futility that no matter what they do, they’re not going to be able to get ahead. It’s a sense of hopelessness.”

Debt has forced some young people to change their career plans. Of those surveyed, 22% say they’ve taken a job they otherwise wouldn’t have because they needed more money to pay off student-loan debt. Twenty-nine percent say they’ve put off or chosen not to pursue more education because they have so much debt already. And 26% have put off buying a home for the same reason.

A smaller percentage say they’ve put off marrying (11%) or having children (14%).

Here in Israel, there is a lot of talk these days about the upcoming Shemita year.  The discussions focus on issues related to working the land, harvesting and marketing the produce.  Rabbinic leaders and governmental officials have weighed in on numerous aspects of the issue.  Observance of Shemita in the modern State of Israel is no stroll in the park, as it has serious economic(how can we let the land lie fallow and watch our export markets dry up?), demographic(how can we be sure that ultra-orthodox children will have enough food and vegetables during the year?), and political (will we really sanction the purchase of fruits and vegetables from enemy populations outside of the land?) ramifications. 

Unfortunately, as happens so often, we are looking at the trees and missing the forest!

Let me explain.

Don’t get me wrong, I am a big advocate of Shemita observance, and of finding ways to celebrate the upcoming year, eating the fruits and vegetables of the land in all of their holiness. However, the verses I have quoted above, found in this week’s Torah reading, seem to indicate clearly that the central  aspect of Shemita (ve’zeh d’var haShemita – verse 2) is the debt-remission part of it!

Taking a look back to Sefer Vayikra, Chapter 25, we do see there the laws regarding abstaining from working the land – but a close reading of that text indicates that we are  to cease working the land so that veshavta ha-aretz Shabbat laHashem – so that the land can have a break and so that it can observe a Sabbath unto the Lord!

Essentially, we have to be hands-off so that the land can observe the Shemita year!  That’s our responsibility to the land, for it too was a partner in creation. (Recall how God created us out of the dust of the earth!)  We stop plowing and seeding it so that the land can pay homage to the creator – that seems to be the simplest reading of the text.

However, for us to pay homage, we are instructed to create equilibrium, to give each other room to breathe, to strive for unity and equality.  The debtor is enjoined to step back and give recognition to God through whose good graces he was blessed with money, given the ability to lend and to help others in need.

I realize it’s not so simple to pull this off, but might we not at the very least begin to include issues of social justice and economic opportunity in our discussions of the Shemita year observances? It must be considered an equally important part of observing Shemita. Will God find satisfaction in our observance of the Shemita year if it is relegated to an observace that focuses on fruit and vegetable consumption and forgets about people?

Solving these socio-economic problems is ultimately in our hands! It isonly our full observance of Shemtia that will lead to the blessing of a country without poverty.  As the Torah continues:

There will be no more poor among you, for God will surely bless you in the land that the LORD your God is giving you to possess as your inheritance. Only if only you fully obey the LORD your God and are careful to follow all these commands I am giving you today. For the LORD your God will bless you as he has promised, and you will lend to many nations but will borrow from none. You will rule over many nations but none will rule over you. (Deuteronomy 15:4-6)

The Torah is clear: being concerned for the poor and for the land simultaneously is not a matter of mixing apples and bananas.

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2 Responses to “100% Shemita”

  1. Yanki Thursday, August 9, 2007 at 12:06 pm #

    I agree that Social injustice is the most major Mitzva in the Torah we like to ignore. It is not only during the Shmitta year but all the time. But what do u do with the text you quoted. The Gmara as u know delves deeply into the issue fearing that if one has to ‘wipe out’ debt on the Shmitta year , no-one will ever loan any money to those who need it.
    The ‘prosbul’ and other workarounds came to in fact negate the simple meaning of these psukim!
    This is one of my many paradoxs’ the Torah doesn’t present the entire picture and then we are in trouble, we have to depend on Rabbinic interpretation!

  2. Yakov Wednesday, August 29, 2007 at 3:23 am #

    In this case the Torah was not ambiguous. It said clearly “you must cancel any debt your brother owes you”. But the law had a pernicious side effect: It made the poor worse off by not being able to get a loan, especially close to a Shmitta year. If the subsistence farmer could not get a loan to buy seed he would sink into an unending cycle of poverty. So the Sage Hillel invented the Prosbul that adapted the commandment to the conditions of the day. It is a pity that today there are no sages of the that stature that could adapt some of the Torah commandments to the changing conditions. There would be many more Shomrei Mitzvot.

    Incidentally the wisdom of remitting debts included in the Shmitta laws has a modern counterpart. It is called the Bankruptcy Laws. Same idea adapted to modern conditions.

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