Parshat Reeh (Deuteronomy 11:26-16:17)
Our Torah portion this week, Re’eh, is replete with religious and social mitzvot, of which one is to take place during the Sh’nat Sh’mitah, the Sabbatical Year: the principle of Sh’mitat K’safim – the absolution of debt. Simply put, all creditors must absolve their debtors from repaying debt in the Sh’mitah year [Deut. 15:2].
Alas, we are too familiar with human nature, and can only assume that many would hesitate to loan any money toward the end of the previous year, fearing that those loans will never be repaid. Fair enough, after all, there’s always the fear that the poor will completely collapse.
This is why the Torah continues with the following warning to anyone who would harbor the horrible thought to refrain from lending money to those whose finances are strained, because they fear, quite justifiably, that the debt would be erased at the end of the year. The Torah even calls this way of thinking – and anyone who could harbor such thoughts – “wicked”, a dubious title the Torah reserves for only the most reprehensible criminals, such as idol-worshippers.
But why shouldn’t people have their reservations, assuming they need the money they had loaned out? Is it not natural for them to have their doubts, and to presume that the poor person might deceive them by simply drawing out repayment until the end of the year, when the loan is erased automatically?
This was such a thorny issue that 2,000 years ago, the sage Hillel instituted the practice of the Prozbul, a document that serves as a legal loophole whereby the creditor has the Beit Din [religious court] collect the debts on his behalf, so that the debt is not erased. In other words, our rabbis found a way to prevent people from suspecting that they won’t be repaid.
Hillel’s decision, however, makes this question even more puzzling. After all, the Torah was aware that people would find it difficult to loan money when there was a good chance any such debts would be erased, so why require the absolution of debt, only to later find a way to circumvent this mitzvah?
The answer is that the Torah wants to give us both the vision and the purpose of the mitzvah. An ideal society that champions truth must be prepared to forego collecting debts, and that is difficult to do. The mitzvah of Sh’mitat K’safim, the absolution of debt, is designed to accustom people to generosity and seeing others in a positive light. This is why the Torah encourages us to open our hearts and our pockets without hesitation.
However, the Torah does not want anyone to take advantage of our kindness and magnanimity. It does not want to create a gullible society that can easily be fooled by a group of scoundrels or by people who try to “catch a ride” on a Biblical mitzvah. Hence, Prozbul.
This is seemingly meant as general guidance for society. Society must always set goals and a vision for itself, which will elevate it to a loftier form of existence centered on benevolence and kindness. On the other hand, we don’t want to fall victim to those who seek to harm us. Thus, a balance must be struck. We should not stop thinking about perfecting the world simply because this world is also home to evildoers who take advantage of others.
We want to be part of a society that dreams of constantly improving how it deals with itself and with others. However, we don’t want to dream to the point that others see us as delusional and disconnected from reality. The mitzvah of Sh’mitat K’safim is therefore a fitting role model for society.
Many of us can remember one or two loans that we gave others that the lenders are struggling to repay. Those are the times we should apply the precepts of Sh’mitat K’safim. However, when we know that the lenders are simply looking for any excuse not to repay the loan, we’ll use the Prozbul, which will obligate them to repay any debts.
During our exile, this mitzvah was not observed, according to many rabbinic scholars. However, in our generation, when an independent State of Israel is part of our reality, we should be thinking about how we can implement the idea of Sh’mitat K’safim, so that a new generation of borrowers can make a fresh start without having to incur any unfair stigmas.
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