I’ve read a lot of your books, yet didn’t see you ever speak about this particular thing:
Reading the Books of Law, I see quite a few mentions about helping out the poor. Not by giveaways, but by lending them what they need (Deut. 15:7-8). It would seem to be logical to give away, But Scripture says, “Lend,” and then, every seventh year you should forgive the debt if that is not paid.
My questions is: I’d never think that the Bible would endorse free-rides or parasitism, but I can’t find the Bible speaking harshly to the borrower. It is quite demanding—you must give, if they don’t pay—you must forgive. Seems like license for a free-ride. I borrow, do not pay, they must forgive, and then, when I come to borrow again, they must give again… Can’t believe it to be what the Bible means to say. Could you, please share more light on that? Thank you.
How should a society deal with money? After thousands of years of human history, we are still trying to figure this out. Should it be, “From each according to his ability to each according to his need,” as Karl Marx wrote? Should we follow Ayn Rand’s vision where only those who produce survive and charity is a vulgar concept?
In our opinion, the closer countries get to the Biblical vision, which neither of the above mentioned authors did, the stronger the society will be. Yet, the Biblical vision is complex, and while it includes the verses you quote, that is not by any means the entire story.
The Shmitah year that takes place every seventh year in the land of Israel which you reference, functions above natural law and was intended to apply only in the Holy Land under Biblically-loyal administration. There are several categories of people in need and they all receive different treatment, according to circumstance.
For instance, the Hebrew used for a person in financial need in those verses, an “evyon,” is one category. Throughout Scripture there are other Hebrew words such as “ani,” and “dal,” that all get translated in English as poor, ignoring the important legal distinctions and nuances.
The Biblical system deals with the reality that there are those who are needy because of their own choices or lack of work ethic, those who are battered by unfortunate circumstances out of their control, widows, orphans and ill people, etc. It has many pieces and variations including those that come into play at different times and places. These include both giving to the poor and lending.
You will remember from the book of Ruth that one element has the poor person gleaning from the leftovers in a field. If all one had to do was ask for a loan and then not repay it, why would anyone do that humbling and difficult work? There is a concept that gets poorly translated as slavery but whereby one indentures oneself or one’s children for up to six years labor, or is ordered to do so by the court. That is another idea that wouldn’t exist if all we legislated only by the verses you quote.
The system we follow to the best of our ability, is based on ancient Jewish wisdom, a combination of the written and oral transmission given to Moses on Mt. Sinai. The oral transmission deals with exactly the type of question you ask—how do we implement and correctly understand verses that only tell part of a story, verses that contradict each other and verses that, if blindly followed, would have us sometimes doing precisely the wrong things.
To conclude, the Shmitah year with its forgiveness of some types of debts is one part of a grand and complex picture. Societies that simply encourage lack of responsibility and free-loading will not survive.
May your work prosper,
Rabbi Daniel and Susan Lapin