Nullifying Debt: Ancient Torah, Contemporary Crisis.

Sharing Resources, Liberating Time

American society is simmering with energy, demanding action against economic inequality and ecological destruction.

Are these just problems of the 21st century?

Hardly! Ancient Torah confronts them in a prophetic mode.

On the Shabbat morning of May 19 this year, many Jews will read Leviticus 25, which calls for us to make sure that every seventh year, the Earth gets to rest from human domination, and workers get to rest from their toil.  The weeks before and after that Shabbat could be a time for reflecting on our contemporary economic/ ecological  crisis in the light of this portion and the related passage in Deuteronomy (15: 1-18) which calls for debts to be annulled in every seventh year

When we read this passage a few weeks hence, we could focus attention on acting upon it as well as reading it. Its teaching of economic justice and ecological sanity calls out to us, today. Our society has degraded us--all of us-- through economic inequality and ecological destruction; what must we do to heal ourselves?

This  seventh year (often called "sabbatical year" in conventional English), was in Hebrew a year of shmitah ("release"-- or "non-attachment" in a more evocative translation). And this spiraling pattern--six years of work; a seventh year of release, pause, reflection, celebration--was in fact carried out in biblical history. The record of its dating has survived these thousands of years. The next Shmitah year will run from the fall of 2014 to the fall of 2015.

But we do not need to wait till then, for us to act upon it.

Why did Deuteronomy add to the Leviticus passage this new approach to the seventh year  -- annulling debt?Most modern scholars think that most of Deuteronomy was not (as the text claims) spoken by Moses  as his farewell speeches before he died and the band of runaway slaves crossed the Jordan to make a new society.  They cite the form of Hebrew in Deuteronomy as far likelier to come from the time of social upheaval in the days of the prophets Jeremiah and Huldah.

Imagine those days contentious, like our own–-the 1% wealthier and the 99% poorer each year; the Tea Party;  Occupy Wall Street; religious restoration and coercion; religious creativity and renewal. Hear a prophetic voice in that moment: "From long ago we used to read--Pause from working the land! Take a break from obeying your boss!–-Yes, those are good, but what about the debts that are pressing down upon us? Abolish them!"

This authentic religious/ prophetic response, drawing on an old sacred text to confront a new social crisis –-  is exactly what we need today.

We face three crises that Shmitah addresses. The weeks before and after the Shabbat of Jubilee and Shmitah --  from May 13 to May 30 -- could be a time for action on any of them:

  1. Demand the Release/ remission of debt (for student loans that cannot be repaid in an era of high disemployment; foreclosed and "under-water" homes encumbered by unpayable mortgage debts; and the poorest nations that cannot afford even the interest on their loans, let alone the principal, without reducing their citizens to serfdom).  For the international implications, click here.
  2. Demand a Release for the Earth from the over-burning of fossil fuels that have overworked the Earth to the point where the global climate that sustains the entire web of life is threatened. For a treasury of articles on Global Scorching, click here.
  3. Demand reductions in work time and a great Release into Free Time, both to multiply jobs and to provide free time to millions of workers who have been disemployed and forced to overwork in ways that violate the profound teaching of the Shmitah as a model for freeing time. For a treasury of articles on Freeing Our Time, click here

What specific actions might embody these messages of the Shmitah? Some examples:

 1.   On Sunday, May 13, or Sunday, May 20, plant a tree -- in your own yard, or your congregation's land, or in a city park (after getting permission). Invite your neighbors. Sing.  Dance around the new tree as if it were a Maypole. (The first Maypoles probably were trees.) The tree will help -- just a little, but many a little makes a lot -- to heal the Earth from the climate crisis.

2.   At your tree-planting time (or separately  -- perhaps right now), gather your neighbors, or your congregants, to write letters to your Senators, urging them to support the bill to prevent impending jumps in the interest rate on student loans, and pay for the difference by taxing at Year 2000 rates the income of households that is higher than one million dollars a year. That will lessen the burden of debt and help just a little to move toward more equality of income.

        3. Ask your employer for a 4 1/2-day work week, perhaps ending at noon on Friday, with no reduction in pay. Ask for that to become the company standard. Make a pledge to yourself to spend that extra free time not on TV or computers but with your family, your neighbors, or your self: Talking "deep talk," not "small talk," or meditating, or walking in the woods. Look at the world and the people around you with love and radical amazement at their beauty. Look and say aloud, "Oh!"  Oh!"  Oh!"  Oh!" in whatever tone of voice the seeing evokes in you.

 Confronted by a profound planetary crisis, we need to do what our spiritual forebears did and as the spiral of Shmitah time itself teaches: Go back to our ancient wisdom in order to go forward into the future wisely. Chadesh yamenu k’kedem: Make our days new --  creative! --  as were the days of long ago.

Tomorrow will be the May Day of spring and Maypole dances, as well as the May Day that began, in 1886 in America, the struggle for the five-day week and the eight-hour day  -- their generation's struggle for Free Time. Every year on that day my grandfather would greet us, “Goot yontif!”  -- a joyful holiday!

Till then –--  goot yontif!

Torah Portions: