Israel inspired: Ancient wisdom to transform a modern economy

Jewish return to Israel was not only a solution for a homeless nation but an effort to create a country based on the values we have cherished for millennia.

Head with Israeli flag kippa (photo credit: REUTERS/Ina Fassbender)
Head with Israeli flag kippa
(photo credit: REUTERS/Ina Fassbender)

In a few months, we will witness history in Israel. An ancient and revolutionary idea, all but lost, will be resurrected: shmitat ksafim – the annulment of debt. This concept is not only an ancient commandment, but also reflects a fundamental principle in an ideal Jewish society.

The Biblical command of shmita, the sabbatical year, requires every Jewish farmer once every seven years to abandon his fields, allowing him to rest, rejuvenate, study and reconnect to the higher purpose of life. However, shmita not only relieves man from his worldly tasks but also frees him from the debt he has accrued over the previous six years. In effect, it allows him a fresh start.
Just imagine the transformative effect the sabbatical year would have on modern society. During the seventh year, property, acquisitions and material possessions take a back seat and are reprioritized – even deprioritized.
Time would become less pressing.
It gives the farmer and the broader society a year dedicated to self-discovery, social responsibility, education, culture, family and community.
As long as I can remember, the discussions about shmita focused on exacting halachic details about which fruits and vegetables can and cannot be eaten. The holistic, philosophical and spiritual ideas that should inspire society and illuminate the next six years of our personal and national life were, in effect, lost… until now.
A nationwide initiative called “shmita yisraelit” is being launched this year with the purpose of restoring the shmita year to its rightful place as a cornerstone of Israeli society and making shmitat ksafim, the release of debt, a national priority.
In ancient Jewish society, before institutional banks, loans were taken primarily from other individuals. The Torah mandates that once every seven years, those debts become null and void. Although returning the loan during shmita year is looked upon positively, a person incapable of paying back the debt is freed from his legal obligations. In the modern context, what would a national debt release look like today, when most debt is owed to banks? An approach was first laid out by Rabbi Yoel Bin-Nun, a founder of the Har Etzion Yeshiva. In short, it calls for a massive national and international fundraising campaign, matched by government grants.
The government would then negotiate a debt arrangement with the banks in Israel.
Similar to the “haircuts” some tycoons in Israel have received over the years, the bank would sell the debt of the poorest families in Israel for pennies on the dollar.
This would alleviate the banks from the time and funds needed to repossess the debt or collateral from the struggling families and simultaneously save the families from pressures of debt collectors.
MK Ruth Calderon (Yesh Atid), who has joined the initiative, spoke about the national project to settle the debt of thousands of struggling families in Israel at a conference held a few weeks ago. “Nonprofit organizations, the Knesset and government bodies are preparing for a ‘social shmita year,’ in which thousands of financially struggling families will be invited to a process of economic recovery. We are working toward an initiative that will create debt arrangements for families that meet specific criteria and will be accompanied by economic rehabilitation organizations.”
A report recently published by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development showed that the poverty rate in Israel is the highest of the 34 member countries. Figures show that the poverty rate in Israel is at 21 percent of the total population and has now surpassed Mexico.
President Shimon Peres commented on Israel’s situation: “The fact that there are 800,000 hungry children in Israel is disturbing. If there are poor among us, it reflects on us as a society.”
One of the profound revelations in the Torah is that of all men, God cares most for the weak and defenseless. “Rabbi Yochanan said: Wherever you find the greatness of the Holy One, there too you will find His humility… Thus it is written in the Torah: ‘For the Lord your God is the God of gods and Lord of lords, the great, mighty and awesome God…’ and immediately afterwards it says, ‘He upholds the cause of the fatherless and widow and loves the stranger giving him food and clothing.’” (Tractate Megillah 31a).
In his book To Heal a Fractured World, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks writes: “Greatness, even for God, certainly for us, is not to be above people but to be with them, hearing their silent cry, sharing their distress, brining comfort to the distressed and dignity to the deprived. The message of the Hebrew Bible is that civilizations survive not by strength but by how they respond to the weak; not by wealth but by how they care for the poor.”
The Jewish return to Israel was not only a solution for a homeless nation but an effort to create a country based on the values we have cultivated and cherished for millennia.
I READ a story once about the second Lubavitcher Rebbe, who was so immersed in his studies that he failed to hear that his baby son was crying. His father, Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, heard the child and held him in his arms until he went back to sleep. Rabbi Shneur Zalman went to his son, still intent on his book, and said, “My son, I do not know what you are studying but it cannot be Torah if makes you deaf to the cry of a child.”
To live a life of Jewish faith is to hear the cry of the afflicted, the poor, the sick and the elderly, and to act. Tzedaka and hessed, charity and compassion, are ideas that are meant to permeate our national lives and our economic system. The shmita year is a national institution created to help the downtrodden and give them a chance to start anew.
This year, as we revive our ancient tradition and transform our spiritual heritage into national legislation and social order, we will witness a glimmer of what Jewish society was always meant to be.  The author is an educator, a filmmaker and host of ‘Israel Inspired Radio’ on iTunes. He is deputy director of the World Mizrachi Movement.
The opinions expressed herein are his own.