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Bonds of Indebtedness and Shame

The scriptural readings of Shavuot force us to consider the emotional and spiritual dimensions of indebtedness.

It’s never just about the money. If it were, asking for reduced synagogue dues wouldn’t be so painful and fraught. If it were, the debts we carry would just be a red number on a balance sheet — not a number that keeps us up at all hours of the night. Our financial obligations carry a world of emotion and stress with them, and their weight can keep us from reaching the joy and freedom that our souls desire and deserve. 

Our tradition deeply understands these emotional and spiritual dimensions of poverty and indebtedness and addresses them directly through the central texts of Shavuot. The festival that we celebrate this week is about more than receiving the Torah, studying all night, cheesecake and blintzes. By means of our liturgical readings, Jewish tradition also presses us to think empathically about the complicated relationships between wealth and power, class and status. The Torah reading for the second day of the holiday and the Book of Ruth both engage with these issues. 

In our Torah reading, we learn: “This shall be the nature of the remission: all creditors shall remit the due that they claim from their fellow; they shall not dun their fellow or kin, for the remission proclaimed is of God.” (Deuteronomy 15:2)

The Torah is here describing the Shmita year, in which every seven years agricultural lands lie fallow, debts are forgiven and creditors are commanded not only to forgive what is owed them, but also not to harass those previously indebted to them. The Hebrew phrase lo yigosh, “you shall not pursue/harass,” is both unexpected and instructive. If debts are to be forgiven, it should be unnecessary to add a prohibition against harassing borrowers. But this additional instruction reveals the Torah’s understanding both of the human impulse to hound those who owe us money as well as the soul of the debtor, who may be gripped by fear, shame and vulnerability. While Jewish law requires that those who borrow repay their debts, the Torah is also aware of the ways in which lenders and collectors can degrade the humanity and health of those who owe them money.  

The word shmita is best translated as “release.” In order for the Shmita year to fulfill its duty of providing everyone with rest, release, freedom and dignity, it is not enough to wipe the slate clean financially. Rather, the creditor must also relinquish the potential power they hold over the debtor — not just now, but forever.   

The medieval commentator Chizkuni brings additional meaning to the seemingly superfluous commandment lo yigosh. Chizkuni invites us to imagine a scenario where instead of forgiving a debt, a creditor just gives the debtor an extra year to pay off his debt. Chizkuni claims this is sinful. He writes: “The Torah forbids the creditor to extend the terms of the loan. This would not be fulfilling the Torah’s law of: ‘release it.’” During the Shmita year, we are all to be released not only from monetary debts, but also from the psychological stress of being perpetually beholden to another. 

Our ancestor, Ruth, whose story we also read on Shavuot, further illustrates the psychological costs of dependency. A Moabite woman whose Israelite husband dies in the opening verses of the book that bears her name, Ruth could have remained in a state of unending shame and marginality due to her poverty and Moabite heritage. When she returned to the land of Israel with her mother in law, Naomi, most of their kinsmen refused to acknowledge her, take her in and provide for her. 

The exception was Boaz, an exemplar of justice and hospitality in a world where poverty persists. Even though his connection to Ruth was remote, he took it upon himself to make sure that she and Naomi were fed, and ultimately brought back into the fold of family. Within his name is the Hebrew word oz, which conveys strength, daring and courage. Boaz put his financial status and reputational privilege on the line in order to do the right thing, to make sure that the neediest were fed and even his most remote kinswomen were housed and recognized.

In both Israel and the Diaspora, personal debts are supposed to be forgiven during the Shmita year, fulfilling the promise of freedom delivered during the sabbatical year. Even though our most recent Shmita year concluded in the fall of 2022, each Shavuot we are reminded of the toxic bonds of judgment, beholdeness and unnecessary need of those in debt. On this Shavuot, let us strive to emulate Boaz and heed the words of Deuteronomy. Let us be strong enough to release others from the bonds of indebtedness and shame, and actively protect those searching for safe haven, dignity, peace and freedom.

This article initially appeared in My Jewish Learning’s Shabbat newsletter Recharge on May 27, 2023. To sign up to receive Recharge each week in your inbox, click here.

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