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May All Debts Be Forgiven

How can we embrace the powerful exercise of Shmita in a way that is both personally meaningful and works to restore the fabric of our community?

This week we ushered out Shmita, the final year in a seven-year cycle in which all agricultural land is allowed to rest, all private property is transformed into commons, and a series of social and economic measures are taken to ensure a more just and equitable society. One of these practices, the forgiveness of debt, traditionally would happen at the conclusion of the Shmita year. The practice, still in force today, essentially prevents disparities of wealth from cycling out of control. Someone who needed to borrow money from a neighbor (without interest), and who had not yet repaid the debt by the end of Shmita, is given a clean slate. 

It is yet another reminder from Jewish tradition that what we may think to be “ours” is actually not, and that we must take measures to prevent our fellow community members from falling into a deep cycle of poverty. The term Shmita literally means “release” and in this case we are instructed to release our claims of ownership over the debt. But what does this practice mean for us today, in a context when many of us are not in the habit of lending money to others? There are now institutions that play that role, and most of us reached the end of the Shmita year without either owing money to or being owed money by a family member, friend, or neighbor. How can we embrace this powerful exercise in a way that is both personally meaningful and works to restore the fabric of our community?

One idea that I’ve been sharing in my teaching about Shmita is that we can consider emotional debts that we might be holding over our family members, friends, and neighbors. How many of us feel as if somebody owes us something? Maybe it’s an apology, or a favor, or a phone call. Have we allowed these feelings to interfere with our ability to connect with this person?  How much is this debt weighing down our ability to be free? And perhaps more importantly, how do our feelings actually prevent the other person from repaying this debt?

This is a time in the spiritual calendar of self-reflection and soul searching. We focus our energies on seeking out the things that we need to ask forgiveness for. We look for the ways that we may have missed the mark. But we need to remember that forgiveness works in two directions. We can ask for forgiveness, and we also can give others permission to seek the forgiveness that they so desire and deserve. 

Our tradition offers an expiration date for the debts that we hold over others. It doesn’t come very often, but it is happening now. May we be able to release those feelings of being owed something, and in doing so, liberate our family member, friends, and neighbors to reconnect and restore the bonds to bring us so close together. 

Nati Passow lives with his family in West Philadelphia where he directs the Jewish Farm School.
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