There’s an old rabbinic tale:
The students come to their Rebbe and say they have found a way to rid the world of poverty – the rich will give the poor what they need. “How is your plan doing?” asked the Rebbe.
They replied: “We’re half-way there…The poor have agreed to accept the gifts.”
Student loan forgiveness is in the news because it is happening in the form of student loan forgiveness just announced by the Biden administration.
Some are saying this is a travesty, some are saying this is like putting a bandaid on an amputated limb - and some are overjoyed to know that they will have some relief from their student debt, a debt that follows you even into bankruptcy in this country.
Let me begin by saying that this topic is political, but let me also explain the feedback that many rabbis receive.
We want you to talk about relevant topics, not things that happened thousands of years ago that we cannot relate to.
Also, please don’t talk about anything political, especially things that are happening today. We want to make sure that no one is offended.
Another one of my favorites that you may have heard from rabbi search committees: “we want a young energetic rabbi with a model family who can work 12 hours a day, 7 days a week, with 30 years of work experience.” As you can see, we live with contradictions.
I have to speak about political things because it’s part of the Torah, but I am not partisan, and congregational rabbis should avoid partisanship.
When people say they don’t want anything political or contradictory, I tell them not to read Deuteronomy 14-15, our Torah reading this week.
The truth is, the Hebrew Bible is an incredibly political piece of literature. The Torah speaks about taxes, poverty and the economics of slavery arguably more than any other topic. There is no line between the political and the ritual - they are interconnected.
Here are two lines from our parashah, in the same chapter:
(ד) אֶפֶס כִּי לֹא יִהְיֶה־בְּךָ אֶבְיוֹן כִּי־בָרֵךְ יְבָרֶכְךָ יְקֹוָק בָּאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר יְקֹוָק אֱ-לֹהֶיךָ נֹתֵן־לְךָ נַחֲלָה לְרִשְׁתָּהּ:
4 There shall be no needy among you—since the Lord your God will bless you in the land that the Lord your God is giving you as a hereditary portion
(ז) כִּי־יִהְיֶה בְךָ אֶבְיוֹן מֵאַחַד אַחֶיךָ בְּאַחַד שְׁעָרֶיךָ בְּאַרְצְךָ אֲשֶׁר־יְקֹוָק אֱ-לֹהֶיךָ נֹתֵן לָךְ לֹא תְאַמֵּץ אֶת־לְבָבְךָ וְלֹא תִקְפֹּץ אֶת־יָדְךָ מֵאָחִיךָ הָאֶבְיוֹן:
7If, however, there is a needy person among you, one of your kinsmen in any of your settlements in the land that the Lord your God is giving you, do not harden your heart and shut your hand against your needy kinsman
First, we see an immediate contradiction - there shall be no needy…and then, however, if there is a needy person among you, you should do this. We will return to that contradiction, but first, we have to notice one word that repeats in verse save: Achicha - Kinsmen.
The Torah talks about classes of people, but we never forget that the people we are speaking about should not be thought of as a mass of anonymous and nameless persons, rather, as flesh and blood human beings, each person a universe unto its own.
Perhaps this is why the Torah uses the term Achicha, or brother. Rabbi Jill Jacobs, in her book titled after a line in our reading this week, There Shall Be No Needy, writes:
In addition to challenging us to see the poor person as a member of our family, the word achikha also disabuses us of any pretense that we are somehow inherently different from the poor. Those of us who do not live in dire poverty often protect ourselves from any sense of vulnerability by finding ways to differentiate ourselves from the poor: they must be poor because they don't work hard, because they drink or take drugs, because they come from dysfunctional families, and so forth. Seeing each poor person as our sibling cuts through any attempts to separate ourselves from him or her.
The question is, who are our kinsmen who are seeking relief? We tend to think that they are probably millennials living in a posh, rent-controlled apartment on the Upper East Side who thought they would save the world with their PhD in philosophy from an exclusive private university but doesn’t want to work, and spends their Sunday mornings eating avocado toast and endless mimosas.
But this is just not the case in almost all student loan stories. Here’s a student loan story from a woman named Susan in Lore City, on a website called studentdebtcrisis.org:
I decided to go back to school at the age of 32. I worked 2 jobs, went to school, and raised my family. My now-ex-husband, was not one for working consistently and I had to take out student loans to help cover not only school, but household expenses. When we divorced, I was left with the student loan debt and was unable to have it included in my bankruptcy filing. I have struggled to make the payments (consistently refiling for the lowest payment plan available to me). Needless to say, I am still over my head with the loans and do not know how I will be able to pick back up making payments if some type of forgiveness isn’t enacted before the scheduled May 1 restart date for payments. I appreciate having the opportunity to voice my story and hope that others will realize that student loans aren't hand outs and that those of us who are struggling are not asking for forgiveness as a handout, but a hand up. Thank you.
This one is from a man named Peter Scray: I am 62 years old and unfortunately had my legs crushed in a car accident back in 2014.I went to college to try and get a good job.I am on Social Security and have borrowed $49,365 to try and assist me in this endeavor.I struggle to make ends meet as it is and now to add $hundreds to my total may force me into bankruptcy as well. I just want to try and have a normal life and it is difficult enough with crushed legs but to now pile on debt that will probably take me the rest of my life to pay off leaves me with little to no hope for the life I so desperately want.I have no house,I am divorced as my ex-wife became tired of having to assist me with everything. Please allow me to also live the American dream.
A woman named Kelly spoke about the unjust interest of student loans. She wrote, “I currently owe just under $300k. You got that right, $300k. And about half of it is interest. I strongly believe in paying my debts, and this debt is like any other. I benefited from that money putting me through graduate school. However, it is the interest that is outrageous, especially in light of the interest rates that big banks pay. These interest rates have essentially put handcuffs on two or more generations' ability to purchase a home, raise children, start businesses, invest....the things that define us as Americans and keep the economy moving and strong. I'm 54. I don't know if I'll ever pay off my student loans before death; it's pretty doubtful. I'm not sure what retirement (if I ever do retire) will look like with this hanging over my head. I understand my responsibility to pay for my education. I would also like the bankruptcy laws to change to at least allow the elderly or people in dire straits to be able to discharge student loans.
Our people have always placed education as a high priority. The Shema gives us the mitzvah of teaching our children, not just our individual children, but our collective children. Education has always been our mechanism to raise ourselves up from poverty. Think about how many Jews, your great-grandparents, who came to America with nothing and work 12-hour days so their children could go to school because they can take your home and money away from you, but they can’t take away your education.
And so I return to the contradiction in this week’s parashah, which, in my humble opinion, speaks to the contradictions we live with in life. Our parashah opens with a choice, blessing or curse, if you follow God’s commandments, you will have blessing. It is a world as it should be view, a world where the righteous flourish and the wicked suffer. But, even our ancestors knew that this was not the world we live in.
But the parashah ends with the world we live in; a world where slavery still exists due to forces outside of the control of the people - a bad harvest, an untimely death of the breadwinner of a family, a drought, a plague. In the stories above, it’s a divorce, a bad accident, or any number of unintended events.
The system of debt remittance outlined in the Torah is, in itself, a world as it should be ideal. In the Second Temple period, the sage Hillel devised a legal system for circumventing the loan forgiveness program of Shmittah because people weren’t loaning money to others. It was called the Prosbul, and it specified that some loans were not subject to the Shmittah. What we learn from this is that we have to live in the world as it is, but we cannot forget the world as it should be, the ideal.
I do not have the answers for the best system to help people like Susan, Peter and Kelly whose stories I shared with you. That is for politicians to figure out and for us to ensure they do through our vote. Avoid the political is also avoiding the suffering of our Achim, our brothers and sisters.
We have to be responsible, like the sage Hillel who realized that the Biblical ideal was just not possible in their society, but we also cannot be cruel, and turn away those who find themselves trapped. We cannot ignore the suffering and pain around us that comes with onerous debt.
Life is full of contradictions; we live in tension between the life as it is, and the life as it should be. Judaism lives in the middle, recognizing the limitations of the world as it is, but always striving to create the world as it should be.
I hope and pray we can work together to create a more just and equitable world as God intended.