Parshat Re’eh – Radical Financial Reform

Parshat Re’eh introduces one of the most radical economic and social mandates of the Bible. We are commanded:

“Every seventh year you shall practice remission of debts. This shall be the nature of the remission: every creditor shall remit the due that he claims from his fellow; he shall not press his fellow or kinsman, for the remission proclaimed is of God.”[1]

This law appears to unfairly relieve the borrower of responsibility whereas the following verses specifically instruct us to lend wholeheartedly to those in need.[2] How can the Torah simultaneously encourage us to lend money and then cancel all debts?

Remission of debt is described in the Torah as “withdrawing one’s hand.”[3] Rabbi Yaakov Tzvi Mecklenburg explains this terminology:

“The word yad (hand) is added is because it symbolizes power, the upper “hand”, rulership and hegemony…because the lender is like the master of the borrower and his control is over him. [As it says in Proverbs[4]] “A borrower is the slave of the lender”.[5]

The commandment of shmitat kesafim, relinquishment of debts, attempts to recalibrate the balance of power. Shmitat kesafim circumvents the risk that persistent debt may become paralyzingly burdensome on individuals or even entire communities. The Torah envisions lending as type of aid to the borrower – indeed Rambam considers it the highest form of tzedakah.[6] When a debt becomes persistent and overburdening, it no longer fulfills its noble purpose and in such a case the Torah advocates shmita. Rav Hirsch emphasizes that borrowers are still duty bound to repay creditors if and when they can, the policy of shmita is designed to prevent the “hand” of the lender from gaining too much control over the life and livelihood of the borrower.[7]

Many Third World nations are victims of the paralyzing effects of debt servitude. Over decades these states have accrued billions of dollars in debt to wealthy countries, international financial institutions such as the World Bank and the IMF, and private lenders. Much of the debt is considered ‘unpayable debt,’ such that the governments do not have the resources to service the loans while providing for the basic needs of their citizens. To add insult to injury, much of the debt is also ‘odious debt’—loans taken out by corrupt and oppressive regimes such as South Africa’s Apartheid governments and former Congolese dictator Mobutu. In numerous countries in the developing world, citizens are now saddled with the debts of their former, and some cases current, oppressors.

Some debt reduction programs technically lower the amount of debt owed, but maintain the drastically lopsided power relationship between lender and borrower that shmitat kesafim intends to redress. Debt reduction by the IMF and World Bank usually comes with strings attached. Countries receiving reductions in their external debt must agree to undergo Structural Adjustment Programs (SAPs), lender imposed conditions aimed at reducing the borrowing country’s fiscal imbalances. SAPs may demand the privatization of state utilities such as water and electricity, trade liberalization, reducing government subsidies, or focusing economic output on exports such as commodity crops. Cutbacks, such as charging citizens for previously free programs, may improve the borrowing country’s balance sheet, yet at the same time hurt those who cannot afford to pay for basic services.

John Perkins, a former consultant involved in brokering large loans to developing countries, has alleged that the wealthy lending countries knew that the loans would never be repaid. Rather, their intention was to force indebted countries into granting access to resources, as well as political, military and economic cooperation.[8]

Fortunately, there has been some progress. Thanks in part to the work of the Make Poverty History and Jubilee campaigns, the past decade has seen the debts of some developing countries reduced. Since 2001, when the Tanzanian government began using its debt service savings to eliminate school fees, over 3 million new students have enrolled in schools.[9] Debt relief in Mozambique allowed 500,000 children to be vaccinated.[10]

The relinquishment of debts is not a utopian vision. Indeed, following the devastating earthquake World Bank canceled all outstanding debts owed to it by Haiti. Global financial powers, however, should not wait for exceptional circumstances: a perpetual but equally deadly toll is taken by human-induced long term poverty. It is long past seven years. Now is the time to call on our elected officials to support a shmitat kesafim, a genuine cancellation of debt which restores the independence and dignity of borrowers.

[1] Devarim 15:1-2
[2] Devarim 15:7
[3] Devarim 15:3
[4]  Mishlei 22:7 – The complete verse reads: “The rich rule over the poor, and the borrower is servant to the lender”
[5]  Haketav Vehakabbala on Devarim 15:2-3. R. Mecklenberg was a 19th Century Rabbi and biblical commentator
[6]  Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Matanot Ani’im 10:7
[7]  Rabbi S. R. Hirsch on Devarim 15:2
[8]  See Perkins, John, Confessions of an Economic Hit Man, Plume, 2006
[9]  One,
[10] Jubilee USA Network,

Parshat Noach – The Flood This Time

In parshat Noach God destroys all humanity in a great flood, save for Noach and his family. The text provides us with a reason for God’s wrath, va’timale ha’aretz chamas,1 that the earth was filled with violence. A simple reading may bring to mind a brutish anarchic existence, where men fight, steal and destroy without restraint. Indeed, various rabbinic interpretations explain chamas as connoting theft, murder, sexual sins and kidnapping. One midrashic source, however, proposes that the crimes of the generation of the flood were in fact cunningly small.

“If a countryman brought a basket of vegetables to market, they would edge up to it, one after the other, and abstract a bit, each in itself of petty value, but in a little while the dealer would have none left to sell.”

Theft, especially this kind of petty theft, might be the product of a culture of scarcity, where fierce competition for resources encourages some individuals to take from others. Perhaps surprisingly then, the rabbis insist that the moral depravity of the generation of the flood was due to prevalent abundance and plenty.2 We learn in Bereshit Rabbah that “as a consequence of their extraordinary prosperity they grew insolent. … A single sowing bore a harvest sufficient for the needs of forty years, and by means of magic arts they could compel the very sun and moon to stand ready to do their service.”

In addition to the nature of the sin, an interesting feature of the Noach narrative is the extended wait between God’s warning of imminent destruction and the moment flood waters engulfed the earth. Commanded to make an ark, Noach plants the trees that will be used as wood, taking 120 years3 to complete the construction. This painstakingly slow building regimen was intended to act as a warning sign. Rashi writes that passers by would ask “What is this of yours? And he [Noach] would say to them: ‘in the future God will bring a flood to the world, maybe they will repent.’”4

With the help of the midrash we have a fascinating picture of the generation of the flood. Firstly, that society was in a crisis caused by the cumulative effect of seemingly insignificant individual acts. Secondly, that prosperity and abundance were the root of their societal malaise, and thirdly, that the consequence of their action, a destructive flood, was slow in coming, allowing adequate time for them to change their ways.

This reading of the Noach story provides a striking parallel to our own society in the midst of a global climate change crisis. No single act of environmental sin or indifference has has caused the Earth to heat up, rather it is the combined effect of billions of actions across the globe. Similarly, our affluence and our ability to harness and control the Earth’s resources are the prime cause of our destruction. Finally, in our generation the waters are rising slowly, we still have time to examine our actions.

It is important then to point out that climate change is as much a social justice issue and it is an environmental problem. Like any crisis, the impact of climate change is felt hardest by the weakest and most vulnerable in society. A small rise in sea level has had little impact on most of us, but it has already caused villagers on the far flung Pacific islands of Kiribati, elevation 6 feet, to become environmental refugees.5 On other Pacific islands, and in low lying areas across the globe, arable land is being lost to the ocean, or becoming unusable due to salinity. This in turn endangers the food security of the local population. Of course, flooding is only one aspect of climate change that farmers and must contend with – even a slight change in regional temperature can cause an entire crop to fail.6

What can we do to stop the flood? Confronted with a problem as large and complex as global climate change, it can be difficult to know where to begin. But as we learn from the generation of the flood, small actions make a big impact. So let’s start simple. If you turn down your heating thermostat by two degrees and you will cut both your carbon footprint and your heating bill. Industrial meat production is responsible for an enormous share of greenhouse gasses. Pick a day of the week (or three) to go meatless and you will slash your household’s carbon output significantly. As we learn in Pirkei Avot, mitzvah goreret mitzvah7. Doing one good deed leads to doing others, as each small action changes one’s consciousness and habits.

We read in this weeks haftarah that the flood-waters are called mei Noach8, the waters of Noach, suggesting that although he was sufficiently righteous to be saved, Noach still bore some kind of responsibility for the destruction.9 While our generation does not have the option of retreating to an ark, we do have a chance, and an obligation, to prevent the next flood.

1 Bereshit 6:11
2 Interestingly, this theme is repeated in the story of Sodom and Amorah. We find a society that is morally repugnant, facing Divine destruction seemingly for its rather extreme sinful acts. Again we find a midrash claiming that the each individuals crime was actually very small, and that prosperity rather than desperation was the root of Sodom’s iniquity.
3 120 years is a period typologically representative of a lifetime in Jewish tradition
4 Rashi on Bereshit 6:14, quoting Bereshit Rabbah 31:7
6 Climate Change and Food Security in Pacific Countries, Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN, Rome, 2008
7 Pirkei Avot 4:2
8 Isaiah 54:9
9 Zohar on Isaiah 54:9