Re’eh: Forgiving Debts

Why does the Torah cancel a borrower’s debts every seven years?
How do the laws of borrowers and lenders in ancient times relate to our lives today?

Table for Five: Re’eh

In partnership with the Jewish Journal of Los Angeles

 Edited by Salvador Litvak, the Accidental Talmudist

At the end of seven years you will make a release. And this is the manner of the release; to release the hand of every creditor from what he lent his friend; he shall not exact from his friend or his brother, because time of the release for the Lord has arrived.

-Deut. 15:1-2

Dr. Sheila Tuller Keiter, Judaic Studies Faculty, Shalhevet High School

So, it seems debt forgiveness was also a hot topic thousands of years ago. This forgiveness of debts seems a matter of social justice. It offers the poor a chance to recover from the cycle of ongoing debt. Alas, it didn’t quite work out that way.

Historically, the practical effect was not debt relief but the inability to secure loans. Lenders, knowing that the seventh year was approaching, would stop lending money, with devastating financial consequences for those who needed access to capital. Hillel’s “prozbul” resolved this problem by creating a legal mechanism for lenders to collect debts beyond the shmitah year. So much for the redistribution of wealth.

It could be that the goal of this particular law is not so much redistribution of wealth as a redistribution of perspectives. The seventh year is marked by another significant law – the cessation of agricultural cultivation. Certainly, the poor can avail themselves of the remaining food from fallow fields. However, by prohibiting land use, the shmitah year also requires landowners to acknowledge the true Owner of their land. Similarly, forgiveness of debts reminds us that our wealth is not truly ours either. As the verse says, it is a time of release “for Hashem.”

The laws of shmitah as conceived in the Torah may not seem so relevant today. Few of us are moneylenders and fewer farmers. However, the message could not be more important. All we have truly belongs to our Creator. Thank God for what we have.

Rabbi Brett Kopin, Milken Community School, Co-author of Creating Sacred Communities

How can Torah command us to forgive a loan, especially when we expect its return? Equally, how can Torah let some off the hook so easily with the passing of time? There are years when we owe, and years when we are owed. It is easy to understand this when it comes to money or property, but less obvious when the loan is personal: we also give our love, affection, energy and devotion to others, ideally in joy. Yet often we find ourselves in relationships where many of those essential ingredients are not reciprocated. We become caught in webs of giving, or worse, webs of taking, forgetting the personal costs incurred.

Just as there is a shmitah of monetary loans, so too can there be a shmitah of relationships. The act of considering those with whom we surround ourselves, and whether those people are worthy of our love and energy, is as important as any sacred task.

When it comes to relationships, many of us do not know when it is time to forgive and move on, or when to finally settle a score with a friend and advocate for the love and respect we know we deserve. Let this verse remind us that we give much more than our money, but our love, our time, and our devotion. It is up to us to decide whether or not we want to take the shmitah of relationships seriously and build lives of mutual love, respect and balance.

Yehudit Garmaise, News reporter and Parsha teacher

We usually feel resentful when we are owed money for even short amounts of time, yet, after a long seven years of waiting for repayment, Hashem tells us to nullify all debts.

Just as Hashem constantly forgives our debts and transgressions, He teaches us to do the same for others. From this commandment, we learn to let go of our angry grudges and unfulfilled expectations.

While Moshe exhorts am Yisroel, who are about to enter Eretz Yisroel, to listen to Hashem’s commandments, the Lubavitcher Rebbe renders the parsha’s first words, “Re’eh anochi,” as Moshe’s instruction that the Nation of Yisroel should also merit to see G-d in the Holy Land.

How does a Jew see an invisible G-d?

By observing the laws of kashrus, giving tzedakah, forgiving loans every seven years, and 610 more mitzvos, Yidden can develop an intuition as to what is the right and holy way to behave in this world.

Only by allowing our Jewish souls to cleave to Hashem, and by nullifying our will to His laws, can we – just even the tiniest bit – begin to glimpse the generosity, love, and kindness within Hashem’s hidden ways.

Only by learning and living Torah can Yidden reach such rarefied levels of kedushah that they will merit to see G-dliness.

A Jew must not only strive to follow Hashem’s commandments, says the Lubavitcher Rebbe, “but to see and behold G-d Himself. Anything less than that, Jews should find wholly unsatisfactory.”

Rabbi David Mevorach Seidenberg, Creator of neohasid.org, author of Kabbalah and Ecology

Why did cancellation of debts happen at the end of the shmitah year, rather than the beginning?

The shmitah year encompassed observances lasting a year and a half. Some agricultural practices, like plowing an orchard, are already forbidden the summer before shmitah starts, while the final act of shmitah called Hak’hel, when the people would gather in Jerusalem to hear Torah read aloud, happened during the Sukkot following shmitah.

Since we are in a shmitah year right now, Hak’hel would be this fall. Only one thing happens at the exact end of the shmitah year: the release of debts, triggered by the advent of the following Rosh Hashanah, which happens even today.

If we imagine what shmitah felt like in the land of Israel, it’s easy to understand why. During shmitah, people lived in close community, sharing food freely, opening fences to wild animals, living closer to the earth.

During shmitah, anyone, rich or poor, could enter any field to take what they needed – enough for their families, but not enough to hoard or sell. Over the course of the shmitah year, people could taste what a classless society might be like. So by the time shmitah ended, it would be abundantly clear how life’s sweetness comes not from hoarding money, but from living in equality.

The end of the year was the moment for cancelling debts, because that was when this release would feel like liberation not just for the debtors, but for everyone.

Marcus Freed, Writer, actor & Jewish educator, marcusjfreed.com, @marcusjfreed

One of Shakespeare’s most-quoted lines is “All the world’s a stage”, which begins the “seven ages of man” speech. Unlike the traditional three-act Hollywood movie, Shakespeare describes the seven “acts” of our lives, where we begin as an “infant..puking in the nurse’s arms’, and end with  “second childishness and mere oblivion; Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.” Good times.

The number seven represents life. There are seven weekdays, seven wedding celebrations (sheva brachot), seven days before a circumcision (brit milah), seven Kabbalistic energies within the body (sefirot), and seven days of mourning when someone transitions to their life in the next world (shiva). 

The Talmud teaches that the world will endure for 6000 years (Sanhedrin 97a), and that each millennia corresponds to one “day” for God. Rav Ketina says that there will be chaos in the seventh millennium, as the planet releases into its own form of shmitta.

“At the end of seven years you will make a release… it is called a release to God” can be interpreted as how we return our soul to God when we die. There is even a secret hint in the word “shmitta” (release). When sounded out loud, shmitta contains the word “Met” which is Hebrew for death, albeit spelled differently.

All the world may be a stage, but we are not just actors; we are writers who get to choose what we say and when we say it. How do you want to script your life, before the curtain falls? 

With thanks to Dr. Sheila Tuller Keiter, Rabbi Brett Kopin, Yehudit Garmaise, Rabbi David Mevorach Seidenberg, and Marcus Freed

Image: Christina’s World by Andrew Wyeth 1948

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