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Debt Release is an ancient concept

Parsaht Behar

Leviticus 25:1-26:2

This week’s Torah portion Behar is timely indeed.  Its focus is on the Sabbatical year and the Jubilee year.  With the European elections that have taken place and the reaction to the growing debts and austerity programs to fix that debt, we are reminded that our ancestors had a regular and radical way to fix growing indebtedness.   That fix was the Jubilee year.  Every 50 years all debts were wiped out.  Slaves were freed and property (in the land of Israel) returned to its original owner!

 Debt forgiveness is the ancient prescription to growing and out of control indebtedness. Every 50 years the ram’s horn was sounded (this followed a sabbatical year) and the Yovel or Jubilee year was proclaimed.  Three features characterized a Yovel year: 1) the land must lie fallow; 2) land property that has been sold reverts to its original owners from the time of the conquest of Israel; 3) Hebrew slaves are to receive their freedom.  This is how the Yovel year was observed.  This release was a forgiveness of debt either on land or the indebtedness of slaves.   In one blast of the Shofar-debts were wiped out and society was reset for another fifty years.  

 Countries do this all the time for one another-debt forgiveness is a regular part of our foreign policy. 

Ancient societies including the Babylonians and Sumerians and even Rome engaged in forgiving monetary debts. 

 For the ancient Israelites this was a holy act. It was a reminder that all we have really belongs to God.

The land is God’s and God has “lent” us use of it. (Lev. 25:23).  It is this idea that is stated explicitly in our Torah portion this week!

Imagine if every 50 years your own indebtedness was gone.  Student loans, mortgages, car payments with the blast of the Shofar no longer existed. 

But that ancient society was also built on some different values than we have at work today.  This week’s torah portion reminds us that we cannot charge interest to a fellow Israelite precisely because she is our family.  Further if one of our family or tribe is in trouble financially then we have the obligation and responsibility to help bail them out!

 We are supposed to care for each other in the deepest ways.  We cannot turn a blind eye.

 In the biblical world view-there was to be neither overwhelming wealth nor deep poverty.  Sadly the gap grows larger in our own day and time between the rich and the poor.  Board room executives squeeze the workers dry and the way we do business makes indebtedness a way of life for the masses. Middle class?  Hardly anyone left there as most people are left behind.  Even a college degree doesn’t guarantee a job any more. 

 The Jubilee year was proclaimed throughout the land to even the odds.

 Perhaps it is an idea whose time has come round again.