Debt doesnt have to be a crisis with the right mindset


Deuteronomy 11:26–16:17

Isaiah 54:11-55:5

Although one doesn’t often equate Washington, D.C., with ancient Israel, the debt ceiling crisis and this week’ parshah have started me thinking about the meaning of debt — the spiritual and emotional impact of owing money.

There are advantages to going into debt. Debt allows us to accomplish that which we would not otherwise be able to achieve, such as purchasing a home, starting a business or investing in education. The presence of debt in a society indicates that people are willing to lend to one another, which is what Rambam considers the highest level of tzedakah.

On the other hand, an excess of debt leads to economic and psychological woes. Continued debt over time can paralyze an individual, a community and even a whole country, creating an environment where everyone feels like a victim. Perhaps this is the feeling in Washington.

Parashat Re’eh attempts to mitigate the effects of long-term debt: “Every seventh year you shall practice remission of debts [shmitat k’safim]. This shall be the nature of the remission: Every creditor shall remit the due that he claims from his fellow; he shall not exact his fellow or kinsman, for the remission proclaimed is of God” (Deuteronomy 15:1-3).

Why would the Torah command us to cancel our debts, after so strongly encouraging us just verses earlier to take care of each other by offering interest-free loans?

Let’s think about both sides of the proverbial coin.

Remission every seven years makes all debt a temporary state. It relieves those who legitimately need to borrow funds from a paralyzing long-term burden, placing the debtor in a position to give tzedakah and contribute to the well-being of others. The parallel between debt and slavery is clear: Just as an Israelite slave is released from work in the seventh year, so too a borrower is released at the close of the same cycle. With human dignity as the Torah’s utmost value, all systems are in place to ensure there is no permanent lower class.

But there are also disadvantages. Shmitat k’safim opens the possibility of taking advantage of the system by calculatedly reneging on an obligation. After the shmitah year, the lender isn’t officially owed anything, jeopardizing the financial security of the creditor and eventually undermining trust between neighbors.

Therefore, the rabbinic tradition tries to safeguard against the creditor’s insecurity. For example, Hillel’s famous prozbul ruling turns personal debts over to the courts and allows for repayment through a third party.

We learn from Mishnah Shvi’it that it is praiseworthy to repay one’s debts even after the shmitah year. One English reading indicates that the lender should be very clear that he is releasing the debt, and that it is by choice and not coercion that the debtor wants to repay.

Perhaps this is a more subtle lesson of our parshah. While it looks like shmitat k’safim is focused on the actions of the lender, the attitude of the borrower may be the heart of the matter.

Even when we are in the throes of debt, we can make the choice to be wholehearted and grateful for our opportunities.

I have an obligation to be the best rabbi I can for the community that invested in my rabbinical training. Your mortgaged house can become an open and warm environment to bring friends and family together. We can hold close the value of tikkun olam as we work to resolve our nation’s debt struggle.

As we continue the climb from the dark depths of Tisha B’Av up to the angelic holiness of Yom Kippur, I challenge us each to move from a stance of debt to one of indebtedness, practicing gratitude for the investment that others have made in us rather than cloaking ourselves in fearful victimhood of the debts we owe.

Rabbi Laurie Matzkin is the director of Lifelong Learning at Congregation Kol Emeth in Palo Alto. She is subbing this week for Rabbi David Booth, who is on sabbatical. She can be reached at [email protected].


Rabbi Laurie Matzkin
Rabbi Laurie Matzkin

Rabbi Laurie Matzkin is the Chief Jewish Experience officer at the Peninsula JCC in Foster City.