Labor Day Weekend is upon us—that last hurrah of the summer, a time for vacationing and partying. But too many in our country can afford neither. Their income doesn’t stretch to meet their expenses even though they work full time. Today, the average income of the top 10% of American earners is nearly nine times the income of the bottom 90%; the top 1% average nearly 40 times the income of the bottom 90%. UC-Berkeley economist, Prof. Emannuel Saez, and his Paris School of Economics collaborator, Prof. Thomas Piketty, calculated that American’s top 1% earn 23% of the total U.S. income and hold 42% of the country’s wealth. The Brookings Institute, in its calculation, claimed that the same 1% earn 18% of the income and hold 33% of the country’s wealth. Even using the Brookings Institute’s lower numbers, the picture of income inequality is stark. And it’s growing. The author of Proverbs warned long ago: עָשִׁיר, בְּרָשִׁים יִמְשׁוֹל; וְעֶבֶד לֹוֶה, לְאִישׁ מַלְוֶה / The rich rule the poor, and the borrower is a slave to the lender (22:7). Is that the direction our country is moving? Some would say we are already there.
In an age of rampant and growing income inequality, this week’s Torah portion provides much-needed wisdom and guidance.
The biblical institution of Shemittah (the sabbatical year, from the root meaning “drop” or “release”) reflects Torah’s abiding ethical concern for those who have fallen on hard times and into debt, and the enormous and widening gap between the haves and have-nots that can result in the course of time. Given the vagaries of weather in the Land of Israel, where agriculture is entirely dependent upon dew and rainfall, drought and famine are ever-present threats. If crops fail, farmers cannot feed their families, let alone sell surplus produce to buy other necessities. If farmers have no surplus to sell, those who earn a living selling farmers their wares cannot earn a living. At such times (as today) people would borrow money to tide them over until their situation improved. But it is often the case that one who is insolvent, rather than digging themselves out of the hole, falls further and further into debt and becomes part of an underclass living in penury. Torah, recognizing this situation as an injustice, declares that every seventh year there is to be a remission of the debts of the poor. The outstanding balance is erased, and those whose fortunes have plummeted have the opportunity to begin again.
מִקֵּץ שֶׁבַע-שָׁנִים, תַּעֲשֶׂה שְׁמִטָּה. וְזֶה, דְּבַר הַשְּׁמִטָּה--שָׁמוֹט כָּל-בַּעַל מַשֵּׁה יָדוֹ, אֲשֶׁר יַשֶּׁה בְּרֵעֵהוּ: לֹא-יִגֹּשׂ אֶת-רֵעֵהוּ וְאֶת-אָחִיו, כִּי-קָרָא שְׁמִטָּה לַיהוָה. אֶת-הַנָּכְרִי, תִּגֹּשׂ; וַאֲשֶׁר יִהְיֶה לְךָ אֶת-אָחִיךָ, תַּשְׁמֵט יָדֶךָ.
Every seventh year you shall practice remission of debts. This shall be the nature of the remission: every creditor shall remit the due that he claims from his fellow; he shall not dun his fellow or kinsman, for the remission proclaimed is Adonai’s. You may dun the foreigner; but you must remit whatever is due you from your kinsmen. (Deuteronomy 15:1-3)
In the ancient Near East, remission of debts was not unique to the Torah. The son of Hammurabi, King Samsu-iluna of Mesopotamia (ruled 1750-1712 B.C.E.), and King Ammitsaduka (1646-1626 B.C.E.) after him, proclaimed a misharum (“justice” or “equity”) that cancelled debts and released indentured servants. Some scholars have suggested that the remission of debts often occurred when the monarch ascended to the throne; it was a political gesture to gain popularity and loyalty. In the sixth century C.E. the Athenian statesman and lawmaker Solon (c.638-c. 558 B.C.E.) similarly cancelled the debts of serfs, restored their farms, and redeemed those who had been sold into slavery. It is not clear that his economic reforms were successful, but between ancient Mesopotamia and sixth century Athens, we see that the remission of debts was considered good policy in several societies.
The Torah’s goal is clear, as is the inducement it provides:
אֶפֶס, כִּי לֹא יִהְיֶה-בְּךָ אֶבְיוֹן: כִּי-בָרֵךְ יְבָרֶכְךָ, יְהוָה, בָּאָרֶץ, אֲשֶׁר יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ נֹתֵן-לְךָ נַחֲלָה לְרִשְׁתָּהּ. רַק אִם-שָׁמוֹעַ תִּשְׁמַע, בְּקוֹל יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, לִשְׁמֹר לַעֲשׂוֹת אֶת-כָּל-הַמִּצְוָה הַזֹּאת, אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי מְצַוְּךָ הַיּוֹם. כִּי-יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ בֵּרַכְךָ, כַּאֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר-לָךְ; וְהַעֲבַטְתָּ גּוֹיִם רַבִּים, וְאַתָּה לֹא תַעֲבֹט, וּמָשַׁלְתָּ בְּגוֹיִם רַבִּים, וּבְךָ לֹא יִמְשֹׁלוּ.
There shall be no needy among you—since Adonai your God will bless you in the land that Adonai your God is giving you as a hereditary portion—if only you heed Adonai your God and take care to keep all this Instruction that I enjoin upon you this day. For Adonai your God will bless you as [God] has promised you: you will extend loans to many nations but require none yourself; you will dominate many nations but they will not dominate you. (Deuteronomy 15:4-6)
This statement is followed by a warning: Do not harden your heart and refuse to lend money to those in need, thinking that when the seventh year arrives, their debt to you will be cancelled. If you do, the poor will cry out to God, and God will respond. The concern that people with wealth will harden their hearts to the plight of the poor is an ever-present problem throughout history. Douglas A. Knight writes:
…[A]ncient Israel—like so many other cultures in ancient Southwest Asia and elsewhere—was characterized by an asymmetrical distribution of wealth and power, which directly determined their laws and protective provisions. Villages were typically characterized by subsistence living standards; a relative absence of goods with significant market value; a direct dependence on the vagaries of weather, pests, and other natural circumstances affecting food production; and vulnerability to the elites who hired them, lent them resources, and enslaved them when they defaulted on their loans. Those elites, on the other hand, lived at some remove from the locales where their food and other goods were produced. Some occupied rural manor houses, but most resided in the nation’s cities, sites dedicated to the well-being and security of the upper class, including royalty. There they could luxuriate in relative comfort and ease, exercising their power and influence, enjoying their acquisitions, and being served by slaves and laborers.
This is hardly an ancient phenomenon. Every year, the Walmart stores in my area put out bins so that employees can donate canned goods to their co-workers, Walmart's own employees, who cannot afford a Thanksgiving dinner. Would this be necessary if Walmart paid them a living wage and provided full-time work, rather than so many part-time positions that make it possible for them to avoid paying benefits? Americans for Tax Fairness estimates that the government pays out $6.2 billion (that’s billion, not million) each year in federal assistance programs to subsidize the low wages Walmart pays its employees. (And that doesn’t include the human price of suffering and indignity.) Collectively, Walmart’s owners, the Waltons, are worth just shy of $130 billion. The wealth of the Walton heirs exceeds the total wealth of the bottom 40% of the country, yet over the past 23 years they have donated just .04% of their wealth to charity. Two years ago, employees delivered a huge bin of their own to heiress Alice Walton’s $25 million Park Avenue duplex. On the side it said,
Walmart Owner Alice Walton:
We don’t want charity.
We want decent pay.
Love, Walmart Workers
One employee, 20-year old La’Randa Jackson of Cincinnati, Ohio, addressed an open letter to Alice Walton, heir of the Walton family fortune, in 2014:
I’m writing to you because it hurts to see the pain in my younger brothers’ eyes when we can’t afford food to fill their stomachs. Sure, they see that I’m working hard, taking the bus an hour each way to get to work at Walmart. Even though they know that things are tight right now, that our mom is often too sick to work, they just can’t understand why last year on Thanksgiving they didn’t get turkey and gravy like other kids their age… It's not just Thanksgiving dinner that's an issue; it's dinner every night... Ms. Walton, my co-workers and I don't want your food bins. We work hard and we don't want your charity. We want you and your family to improve pay and hours for Walmart workers like me so that we can buy our own groceries. We want fair pay for the work that we do to help your family add $8.6 million a day to your $150 billion in wealth.
More than a century ago, Teddy Roosevelt addressed the danger of “a small class of enormously wealthy and economically powerful men” cultivating disproportional power and clout, to the detriment of the majority of Americans. One hundred and six years ago this week, Roosevelt warned that “ruin in its worst form is inevitable if our national life brings us nothing better than swollen fortunes for the few and the triumph in both politics and business of a sordid and selfish materialism.” Roosevelt’s prescient warning is the reality we see today, and it is threatening our freedom and our democracy. The political sphere is the province far more of big business than it is ordinary Americans. Massive inequality undermines trust, so evident today. Consider how distrustful and cynical people are concerning their elected leaders and the possibility that government could serve their needs and deliver justice. Health is taking a hit, as well, with staggering rates of of anxiety, mental illness, addiction, obesity rising. As Yale University Nobel Laureate economist Robert Shiller summed it up in 2013, “The most important problem that we are facing now today, I think, is rising inequality in the United States and elsewhere in the world.” Two months later, President Obama identified income inequality as the “defining challenge of our time.”
Many antidotes have been suggested: Raise minimum wage to a living wage; fund public higher education so that students don’t leave college with an enormous debt package; increase the state and gift tax to eliminate loopholes and evasions for the wealthy; reinstate the Glass-Steagall Act to separate commercial and investment banking; pass sensible campaign funding reform; reign in Wall Street.
Proverbs tells us:
עָשִׁיר, בְּרָשִׁים יִמְשׁוֹל; וְעֶבֶד לֹוֶה, לְאִישׁ מַלְוֶה
זוֹרֵעַ עַוְלָה, יקצור (יִקְצָר-) אָוֶן; וְשֵׁבֶט עֶבְרָתוֹ יִכְלֶה
טוֹב-עַיִן, הוּא יְבֹרָךְ: כִּי-נָתַן מִלַּחְמוֹ לַדָּל.
The rich rule the poor, and the borrower is a slave to the lender.
He who sows injustice shall reap misfortune; his rod of wrath shall fail.
The generous person is blessed, for he gives of his bread to the poor. (Proverbs 22:7-9)
Does Torah have something to say about this situation? You bet it does.
© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman
You may have noticed that Deuteronomy 15:2-3 stipulates that the remission of debts applies only to fellow Israelites. “Foreigners” are excluded from this benefit. Etz Hayim, uncomfortable with this apparent bias, notes that King Ammitsaduka cancelled only the debits of fellow Akkadians and Amorites in Babylon, and seeks to explain this feature of the Shemittah: “Collecting debts is a legitimate right, and forgiving debts is an extraordinary sacrifice that members of society are willing to forgo only on behalf of those who have a special family-like claim on their compassion.” (Etz Hayim Torah and Commentary, p. 1077)