The biblical portion of Re'eh is filled with many laws - ritual and ethical - but with a marked emphasis on the ethical, especially in terms of interpersonal relationships and finances. In this context our portion cites the law of the Sabbatical year - the commandment which we have already seen in Leviticus (25:1-8, 19-24) wherein the Israelites are enjoined to leave their land fallow, neither sowing nor pruning nor reaping nor harvesting. The land is allowed to rest and restore itself, fruits and vegetables are left "free for all takers" and the clear lesson is that "no land may be sold [or owned] in perpetuity, for the land [even land which God supposedly gave to Israel] is Mine [God's]; you [human occupants] are merely strangers and residents with Me [on My land]" (Lev. 25:23).
Our portion of Re'eh adds one critical nuance to this law: Not only must each owner of land relinquish (Hebrew shmita) his ownership by not "working" it and by allowing every passerby to benefit from its produce, but each must likewise release his debtors from repaying their loans at the end of this seventh year. "This is the matter of the remission: every creditor must remit his authority over what he has lent his fellow; he may not press his fellow or his brother [for repayment], since a remission [shmita] has been proclaimed for the Lord" (Deuteronomy 15:2).
Many modern biblical scholars maintain that the Bible is merely calling for a remission, and not a cancellation, of the loan; after all, if the farmer cannot harvest and sell his excess produce, how can he be expected to repay a loan? Therefore the creditor must wait until the end of the eighth year, after the following harvest, to press for repayment.
However, the sages did not interpret shmita as merely a temporary suspension of the loan, but rather as a complete cancellation, an opportunity for every debtor to start afresh, to gain a new lease on life, emerging from the sabbatical year with a clean slate. Indeed, the very next passage enjoins the Israelite to open his hand to his destitute brother, to freely lend him whatever he requires and to beware "lest there be a malevolent thought in your heart, saying, 'The seventh year, the debtor-release year, is approaching,' and you will look meanly upon your down-and-out brother and you will not give him [a loan]; he may then appeal against you before the Lord, and it will be accounted to you as a sin. You must give, yes give him... and, in return, God will bless you in all your deeds and in your every undertaking" (ibid 15:9,10).
But is this really fair? Can the Bible legitimately expect creditors to wipe out their IOU receivables on the sabbatical year? And the fact is that when society changed from an agrarian to an industrial system, and individuals began making business rather than personal loans, the sages allowed for a prozbul, wherein loans were to be made through the religious court and therefore would not have to be rescinded on the seventh year (B.T. Gittin 36, 37). But nevertheless, the biblical law would certainly require even today that well-to-do creditors cancel personal loans, especially to indigent debtors. On what basis?
I believe the answer is to be found in a literal reading of the passage which forbids taking interest on loans: "If you [have surplus funds, and therefore are in a position to] lend [money] to My nation, [understand that] God has given the money which should have gone to the poor to you [in trust, as a test]; do not press him in an overbearing way, and do not charge him interest [since you are only returning to him what should have gone to him in the first place]" (Exodus 22:24, in accordance with the interpretation of the Ohr Hahaim, R. Haim ben Attar). Hence not only our land but also our funds really belong to God, and He expects us to distribute those funds fairly! It is not what we have which is significant, but who we are; and who we are depends in great measure on what we give - to others, to society.
I heard a beautiful story from a very special Jew, Victor Alhadeff, who - together with his gracious wife Suzie - is a leader of the Seattle and world Jewish community. Eight extremely wealthy but nonobservant Jews took a trip together to Israel for the first time. As was to be expected, they were hounded by donation seekers, all of whom left them unimpressed. And then they were taken to a haredi yeshiva, whose representative promised that they would be taught Torah in the central study hall for only one hour by English-speaking students - and there would be no appeal for funds.
After a fascinating hour, the elderly yeshiva head, stricken with Parkinson's, rose to address them: "I am old, and have lived my life; you are young and have much to yet accomplish. I know you are busy, and have no patience for long speeches. You have visited our yeshiva and studied with our students - all very dedicated, all very poor, living literally from hand to mouth.
"Permit me to leave you with one thought. I lived through the European Holocaust in a concentration camp. We were eight people in one bunk who were cruelly pushed to work with rigor and almost without food for 16 hours a day. We came back at night to a freezing room with only one blanket. What did we, what could we, do? We shared!"
The old yeshiva head sat down. His lesson was clear, as is the lesson of the Bible. We must all share!
The writer is the founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone Colleges and Graduate Programs, and chief rabbi of Efrat.