By Rabbi Ari Kahn
The mitzvah to which we are introduced in Parashat Re’eh helps even out these inequities, leveling the playing field and restoring balance to the financial ecosystem of the Land of Israel. This is a primary form of Jewish social justice.
In this week’s Torah reading, Moshe continues to prepare the nation for their new life in the Land of Israel. He warns them - numerous times - not to follow the practices of the local pagans who worship their deities under “every leafy tree.” Instead, he tells them, they are to create a central place of worship; there, and only there, are they to bring offerings to God. Reading these instructions, we might conclude that our religion is to be practiced only in this centralized place – in the Temple, in a place that we later learn is called Jerusalem. However, the subsequent verses of Parashat Re’eh prove this conclusion to be in error: A new element of holiness is revealed in this week’s parasha, and it is the most decentralized form of holiness we can imagine.
The Torah had already introduced the idea of a sabbatical year, at first very succinctly in Parashat Mishpatim (Sh’mot 23:10-11), and then in a more fully developed manner in Parashat B’har (Vayikra 25). In the sabbatical year, we relinquish ownership of the fields, orchards and gardens of the Land of Israel, and we remind ourselves that this land belongs to God. For six years, we work the land and benefit from its produce, but the seventh year reminds us that we are merely tenants. The “landlord” has set out very specific rules by which we must abide if we are to remain on His land. Indeed, Moshe reminds the nation - quite pointedly - that the Israelites will be inheriting theland not because of their own merit, but because of the gross misbehavior of the nations that have taken up residence there. The current tenants will be banished because they have failed to obey the landlord’s most basic rules; should the Israelites emulate the behavior of these other nations, their own fate will be the same. (Dv’arim 9:4,5)
How, then, do we merit the Land of Israel? We must do more than eschew idolatry; we must create a just society, and the new element of holiness which is introduced in this parashah aims to do just that: “Shemitat kesafim,” the monetary sabbatical, calls for the cancelation of loans at the end of the sabbatical year (Dv’arim 9:15).
In the seventh year, farmers are not to work the land; even produce that grows spontaneously is declared ownerless. This is how we are reminded that the land is not ours. However, a small problem may arise as a result of this cessation of work: survival. The farmer declares his or her fields ownerless; anyone and everyone may come and take whatever produce they find growing there in the seventh year. The economic burden created by observing this commandment, though, falls squarely on the shoulders of the farmer. Even if the sabbatical year was preceded by years of prosperity, when perhaps the farmer might have put aside a “nest egg” to help survive the year without income, a full year of unemployment is most certainly a severe economic hardship.
It is here that the Torah introduces the law of loans and canceled loans. Presumably, the person in need of a loan is the farmer who has no income. We may further presume that the person who is giving the loan does not subsist from agriculture. This “industrialist” has not been hurt financially by the sabbatical year; quite the opposite, he or she has been the beneficiary of free produce throughout the year. As the seventh year wears on and thecity-dweller’s savings add up, the farmer’s savings dwindle. The mitzvah to which we are introduced in Parashat Re’eh helps even out these inequities, leveling the playing field and restoring balance to the financial ecosystem of the Land of Israel. This is a primary form of Jewish social justice: By canceling these loans at the end of the sabbatical year, the burden – and privilege - of shemittah observance is shared equally by all members of society.
We should not overlookthe more subtle message of the commandment of shemitat kesafim, the monetary sabbatical: Just as the Land of Israel and all its produce are holy, and belong, ultimately, to God, so, too, does all wealth. Whether a household subsists on farming or trading, on agriculture or industry, all prosperity comes from God’s hand. Both the commandment to let the land lie fallow and the commandment to extend loans and cancel debts are divine imperatives; both are intended to remind us that all sustenance comes from God.
The underlying message of these laws was not lost on Hillel, one of the greatest sages of the Mishna. In order to preserve the spirit and intent of the sabbatical laws, Hillel enacted an often-misunderstood and therefore much-maligned decree known aspruzbul(Mishna Shvei’t 10:3). At a time in our history when the majority of Jews did not live in the Land of Israel, the sabbatical laws were observed only by force of rabbinic decree; they were not a Torah-mandated obligation (Rashi, Gittin 36a). This being so, the system of loan cancelation was at risk of collapse, and many people declined to extend loans to other Jews. Hillel created a system, based on an existing loophole in the sabbatical laws, which enabled individuals to assign loans to the court for collection; loans assigned to the court are not affected by the sabbatical laws (Mishna Shvei’t 10:2). In this way, lenders were allowed to bypass a rabbinic law (cancelation of loans at the end of the sabbatical year) in order to uphold the Torah obligation to help other Jews in need. In other words, the very same rabbis who instructed lenders to cancel debts also placed limits on the lenders’ “exposure” by relying on Hillel’s pruzbul.
It has become fashionable in our day and age to claim that “when there is a rabbinic will there is a halakhic way.” Cynics of this ilk enjoy nothing more than pointing to the enactment ofpruzbul as evidence that the rabbis can upend the Torah whenever they so choose. Rashi, and many others, would not agree: Hillel’s innovation applied a pre-existing principle of Torah law, and affected the enforcement of a rabbinic statute; it did not have anything at all to say about observance of a Torah-mandated law. In fact, Hillel’s innovative approach had precisely the opposite result: It allowed monies to be returned to their rightful owner, and was motivated by the desire to uphold the Torah law that requires us to extend loans in support of the less-fortunate members of the community.
The Torah’s sabbatical laws are a means of creating social balance: When the financial burden of the sabbatical year is shared by all sectors of the society, the different sectors of society are sensitized to and take responsibility for one another’s welfare. These laws –shemittah and shemitat kesafim – preserve the fabric of our society, and refocus us all on the true secret of our continued survival: The land belongs to God, and our presence and prosperity here is dependent upon God’s benevolence and our own decency.