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On this Rosh Hashana Eve, which also marks the end of the Sabbatical - shmita - year, the Torah teaches an important lesson about greed and trust, a lesson which resonates particularly loudly today as America, and much of the rest of the world, grapple with a major financial crisis.
The coincidence is impossible to ignore: On Monday, the last day of the present seven-year shmita cycle, Jewish law dictates that all outstanding debts be canceled. At the same time, US Congressional leaders and the Bush administration prepare to perform perhaps the largest cancellation of debts - shmitat ksafim - in US history, a financial bailout that will cost America $700 billion.
True, financial disasters often happen in September. The inevitable financial crash often gets postponed until after the slow summer vacation months. Still, the concurrence of the end of the shmita cycle with the financial crisis is striking.
According to Jewish law, a creditor who has not collected a loan before the Rosh Hashana following the seven-year shmitacycle must relinquish it. The rabbis looked favorably upon debtors who insisted on paying back their debts anyway. But there is no obligation.
Later, after being conquered by the Romans, the subjugated Jewish people, living in the land of Israel in a constant state of political and economic instability, began to refrain from extending loans out of fear they would lose their debts. Hillel the Elder, who died in 10 CE, responded by instituting a legal loophole called a prozbul that circumvented the shmita.
But the ultimate ideal, according to the original biblical commandment and the teachings of the rabbis, is to foster a society built on mutual trust in which debtors are not obligated to creditors at the end of the shmitayear.
Obviously, the US bailout plan is not identical to the biblical commandment to relinquish debt. American legislators and regulators who rescued Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac and AIG from financial collapse are motivated by a self-serving desire to head off a domino effect that could topple the US economy. In contrast, shmitat ksafim is to be performed regardless of any personal benefit. The impetus should be a desire to build a more just society in which individuals are responsible for one another and no one is subjected to the ignominy of living in eternal debt.
An important lesson can be learned from shmitat ksafim, as relevant as ever in this age of unencumbered free-market economies fueled by greed and self-interest. Human beings, says Judaism, should not be a bunch of essentially selfish individuals who do nothing but seek to maximize their material well-being. Greed might drive economies, but, unchecked, it can spiral out of control and wreak havoc - as it is currently doing in the US banking and mortgage industries.
shmitat ksafim teaches that, sometimes, a feeling of solidarity and support for the community should override narrow individual interests.
THIS MESSAGE is pertinent for the Jewish state as it prepares to celebrate Rosh Hashana.
Disturbing trends plague our society - including a high level of socioeconomic polarization between rich and poor, and a large percentage of children living under the poverty line.
Underlining the distress, according to data released recently by Yedid, the Association for Community Empowerment, this year approximately 3,000 Israeli homeowners were evicted from their homes for failing to meet mortgage payments, up from about 2,500 last year.
Banks and other large creditors should not be expected to make a wholesale cancellation of debts. And debtors should not be allowed to get off scot-free. But exceptions can be made when the debtor is sincerely willing to work hard and make painful changes in spending and saving habits, and the creditor can safely agree on a compromise without risking financial instability.
This would foster a greater feeling of trust and mutual responsibility, in keeping with the true spirit of shmitat ksafim.
Our society is far from the ideal, but it is our obligation to strive for the sense of mutual responsibility sought by the framers of Jewish law - an obligation underlined by the remarkable coincidence of the ancient enlightened shmita provisions and the current bitter financial crisis.
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