It is always heartening when a Biblical idea takes hold and inspires the world to act in pursuit of a just and righteous cause. As we approached the new millennia a campaign developed to wipe out all third world debt. This international movement sought to reset the global economy, so that developing countries would not be burdened with bills from previous generations. They were inspired by the Biblical idea of the Jubilee year, which we read about in this week’s Torah portion, and so they called their campaign Jubilee 2000.
Back then, we focused on economic problems abroad, motivated by the Biblical instruction to ‘consecrate the fiftieth year, and proclaim a release in the land for all its inhabitants’ (Leviticus 25:10). People did not imagine that in the decade which followed the economies in the developed world would suffer a recession, and that poverty and astronomic levels of debt would become a problem here as well. In the last several years as the world has been gripped by a global recession, economic challenges have been a reality both at home and abroad. This week’s Torah portion offers several laws which could be applied to our current situation, serving as a way of helping those most in need to climb up from the places where they have been dumped.
The text makes it clear that we are responsible for each other, with obligations to the wellbeing of our fellow person. ‘”‘If your brother becomes impoverished and is indebted to you, you must support him; he must live with you like a foreign resident. Do not take interest or profit from him, but you must fear your God’ (Leviticus 25:35-36). While the impoverished person has fallen into debt, it is forbidden to exploit this by charging interest when helping him to get back on his feet. And it appears that the society actually has an obligation to look after him, living under the status of a ‘foreign resident’.
If the situation becomes so bad that the person is forced to sell himself into slavery to relieve his debt, the text is clear ‘you must not subject him to slave service. He must be with you as a hired worker, as a resident foreigner; he must serve with you until the year of jubilee’ (Leviticus 25:39-40). The person is protected in terms of his status, and with a finite term of service before his debt is cleared. A person was therefore protected from falling into a permanent, impoverished, slave state.
While the Torah speaks in terms which are relevant to it’s specific context, the examples have relevance to our modern situation. Today people fall into a cycle of debt, which is often exacerbated by ever increasing charges of interest, this is especially difficult for those who amass large amounts of credit card debt. And while people might not be selling themselves into slavery; today many people are forced to work several low-paying jobs, in terrible conditions, just to make ends meet. This might not be slavery, but the reality of the situation is not so far removed.
The Torah serves to remind us that we do not live in a vacuum, we are responsible one for another. The Jubilee was society’s inbuilt corrective, but even without this special year, the system ensured that those at the bottom would not be exploited. There was a safety net to help catch people when they fell. And the safety net was built on the simple premise of not exploiting those at the bottom of society. If only our modern world would learn this ancient lesson, how much better would it be for all of us.