'I release': Freedom not to collect on debts
Whoever really wants to observe the spirit of Shabbat presented in the 'Mishpatim' Torah portion needs to ensure that the weakest elements of society receive their due rest. And in the shmita year, we will contend with the idol of greed, with the dictator of the modern world - money
Shmita year will soon be here
Next year is a shmita year (the seventh year in a seven-year cycle during which land in Israel must lie fallow and debts are canceled), and the shmita winds are already blowing through various spaces in the Israeli society, even through the halls of the Knesset.
Alongside the usual exhausting shmita issues that offer a distressing mix of religion, politics and money, new and heartwarming shmita issues are unexpectedly popping up in the Israeli social agenda.
The fascinating question being asked in progressive Jewish organizations, and for the first time by several members of Knesset, is if we will be able to offer a non-halachic yet meaningful translation of the shmita year.
The moment shmita year was born
In this week's Torah portion, "Mishpatim," the mitzvah of "shmita" bursts forth into the world (Exodus 23:10-11):
"And six years you shalt sow your land, and gather in the increase thereof. However the seventh year you will let it lie cast down and neglected, that the poor of your people may eat; and what they leave the beast of the field shall eat. In like manner you will deal with your vineyard, and with your olive yard."
The above description of this mitzvah is extremely brief. In the current discussion on the shmita year, it is commonly accepted to attribute social or ecological considerations to this mitzvah, therefore it is worthwhile taking note that the mitzvah of shmita is described in these verses without any explanation. The fact that the poor eat the produce of the fields is not mentioned as the reason for the mitzvah, just like the fact that scavenging animals will eat the produce is not the rationale for its observance.
In our Torah portion, the mitzvah of Shabbat is immediately preceded by the shmita mitzvah, and perhaps it is possible to propose a connection between them (Exodus 23:12): "Six days you shall do your work, but on the seventh day you shall rest; that your ox and your ass may have rest, and the son of your handmaid, and the stranger, may be refreshed."
Indeed, both mitzvot focus on work and its cessation. Both mitzvot have cycles of seven (six time units of work and one of rest). I especially love the description of Shabbat in the "Mishpatim" Torah portion. This Shabbat proposes rest to those in society who really work hard and toil: the beasts of burden, the slaves, and the foreigner. Note that it is not stated that the landlords and owners need to rest. Landlords and owners need to not work. The animals and the workers need to rest and rejuvenate.
'Shabbat Jew' instead of 'Shabbat goy'?
The widespread custom of employing non-Jews to perform Shabbat tasks forbidden to Jews is inconsistent with the above-cited verse. Whoever really wants to observe the spirit of Shabbat presented in the "Mishpatim" Torah portion needs to ensure that the weakest elements of society receive their due rest.
This moral of the Torah portion obligates us, the established Jews, to safeguard the rest of those that utilize their bodies in backbreaking labor for our sake during the work week. So what do you all think? Should we let the foreign workers rest on Shabbat and be their "Shabbat Jews"?
This is a shmita year, not a sabbatical year
In the gently blowing spirit of the new age, the root word 'shin-mem-tet' occasionally has its moments of usage. The attempt to instill a new meaning to "shmita" also causes superficial and irresponsible translations to be brought up at the discussion table. There are those who propose turning the shmita year into a year of "undermining angers" (shomtim ke'asim), "undercutting bad habits" (shomtim hergeleem raeem), "undoing prejudice" (shomtim de'ot kdoomot), and more...
Almost every positive and unbinding thought can be woven with the root word "shin-mem-tet" and carry on its thin wings an empty promise of secular redemption for the traditional shmita.
However, a brief dictionary check teaches that the action of shmita is by no means a pleasant action. Shmita is being cast down, thrown, or released. Tragedy strikes when during David's celebratory return parade of the Ark of God, it starts falling as a result of the cattle pulling the wagon carrying it. Uzzah prevents it from falling by catching it, but in so doing breaks the taboo on touching it and is struck dead by God (2 Samuel 6:5-6).
The difficult root word "shin-mem-tet" plays a role in the story of Queen Jezebel's killing (2 Kings 9:30-33): "And when Jehu was come to Jezreel, Jezebel heard of it; and she painted her eyes, and attired her head, and looked out at the window...And he (Jehu) said: 'Throw her down.' So they threw her down; and some of her blood was sprinkled on the wall, and on the horses; and she was trodden under foot."
Therefore, shmita is being cast down with results that can be terrible.
Even more so, as opposed to the mitzvah of Shabbat in which we are commanded to "cease working" and the workers are able to "rest," in the shmita year we are commanded to "cast down (the land) and neglect (the land)" (Exodus 23:11). These are two harsh words describing active abandonment in very unpleasant terms. A year of "casting down and neglect" is no "sabbatical year" and it demands impressive interpretation.
Is economic shmita year self-destructive?
In the "Mishpatim" Torah portion, a land-based shmita year is described, but in the book of Deuteronomy the "shmita year" is presented as an even more extreme and demanding year, a year of annulling financial debt (Deuteronomy 15:1-10): "At the end of every seven years you shall make a shmita. And this is the manner of the shmita: every creditor shall release that which he has lent to his neighbor... Beware that there be not a base thought in your heart, saying: 'The seventh year, the year of release, is at hand'; and your eye be evil against your needy brother... You shall surely give him, and your heart shall not be grieved when you give to him."
This is already not very easy or superficial. Once every seven years every person is obligated to forgive all the loans he has issued for the previous six years. This law threatens to turn every loan into a gift, and therefore in practice, cancel out the issuance of the loans that are especially important to the poor themselves.
I cannot understand what the legislator that formulated this economic shmita year was thinking. The language of the law itself is already trying to wrap itself around the temptation not to observe it. This teaches that the public will not be able to, and perhaps shouldn’t, pass the test of this law's observance.
Indeed, there is no evidence for the communal observance of the economic shmita year. Already from the earliest period of the Oral Torah, the rabbinic sages formulated various legal proposals whose purpose was the practical cancelation of this law.
One of the legal maneuvers around the shmita year is articulated in the Mishna (Shevi’it 10:8): "If one returns a debt during the shmita year, the creditor must say to him: 'I release (the debt)’; if he says: 'Even so, I insist,' the creditor may accept it from him…”
If the borrower returns his debt to the lender during the shmita year, the lender is able to fulfill his formal obligation by simply stating:"I release." That is to say, I observe the shmita laws and refuse to take the money. However, if the borrower will persist a second time, the loan repayment is converted into a sort of gift, and the integrity of the shmita law is saved.
Last week I shared here the moving gift that my daughter and I received from Aroma Café on Mamilla Avenue. Since then I have been trying to understand what exactly is so moving about the gift they gave us. A week ago, I promised myself to do for others what they did for me. It is also for this purpose that I am trying to understand the magic secret of the gift I received.
I say to myself that the money was not the issue, even though that was certainly part of the matter. This was a special moment in which good intentions, attached to a generous act, were stated honestly and out loud.
I return to thoughts of the demanding economic shmita year, and think that this is the story. This is a translation that is secular and demanding, mainly charming though, of the shmita year. In the literal, not symbolic, sense, what Amir and Tami did could easily merit the powerful headline "shmita."
With their inspiration and for the upcoming shmita year, I think it could be wonderful if once in a while every one of us will take on his or herself, whenever it seems possible and appropriate, to say to someone: "I release." However, unlike in the Mishna, in our shmita year this statement should not be ritual or followed by repayment. In our shmita year this will be a statement after which will follow a smile of brotherly and sisterly unity: "I release."
Shmita year as revolt against dictatorship of money
This is not a halachic proposal and therefore everyone can choose for themselves when and to whom to they want to say "I release." We will do this only occasionally. We will do this when it is appropriate. But we will do it.
In this matter the law will apply equally regardless of expense. Everyone will "release" according to their respective financial ability and according to the respective bravery of their heart, but they will all "release." Good intentions are nice, but the shmita year is a demanding year. In the shmita year we will join action to good intention. We will contend with the idol of greed, with the dictator of the modern world, with money.
Every time we say 'I release,' we testify that:That it is pleasant for us to forgive, and that it is pleasant for us to be forgiven.
That we, even if just for a moment, are stronger than our money, that we manage it and it is not what manages us.
That we have other things more satisfying than collecting on debts from friends.
That our freedom is that we are sometimes able to hold our tongues for money.
That we are committed to brotherly and sisterly bonds and compassion, and that by us, good words by themselves are not always adequate.
Every time that we will say "I release," we will teach ourselves to ask what really is important to us. Every time we will say "I release," we will learn to exchange gifts with one another. Every time that "I release" is said, we will smile and know that we succeeded to treat money with humor and hope that it will likewise treat us.
And in the beit midrash of talkbacks
I received an enormous amount of moving responses this past week. Everyone was warm and heartwarming. Thank you everyone for the love.
I have chosen to publicize one response I received via Facebook from a brave and wise person named Uri Swisa: "Hello I am Uri. I am a 24 year-old college student. I read your column on the Ynet website and discovered that you think exactly like me. The fact that I would study in university went without saying, just as the fact that I would serve in the Israeli army (relative to the fact that I walk with the assistance of crouches, this certainly is possible). However, what is perceived as an accomplishment is me sitting in coffee shops, movie theaters, bars, traveling abroad, or in other words choosing to live a full life without feeling the need to hide, because I do not have anything to hide from. So thank you for sharing from the heart. Shabbat Shalom."
Thank you, Uri, for your choice in living a full and rich life, for not giving up, and for the lesson you teach us all.
Finally, Gal Ashkenazi requested that I refer you all to a website he is trying to strengthen, one intended to be a resource for parents and caregivers of children with special needs. Thank you Gal, may you merit even more mitzvot.
Translated by Uzi Bar-Pinchas
Click here to read this article in Hebrew