Rabbi Fred Scherlinder Dobb |
Special to WJW
This week’s Torah portion is Re’eh, Deuteronomy 11:26-16:17.
“Make a radical release.” Re’eh invites us to consider what we’re unhealthily clinging to.
What’s hard to let go, though it scarcely serves us, or others? What modes of thought, patterns of behavior, structures of society do we hold onto, that actually hold us back?
Deuteronomy, Moses’ long farewell, invites a fresh start if we make better choices than our ancestors, or our old selves. This time we’ll uphold the covenant; we’ll appreciate, not kvetch; we’ll think of others, not just ourselves.
We read this just before the Days of Awe, a time ripe with reconsiderations and fresh starts. Each New Year is a golden opportunity, for ourselves and those around us.
And “at the end of every seventh year, you shall make a shmitah, a radical release” (Deuteronomy 15:1). We learned in Exodus 23 and Leviticus 25 that sabbatical years are breathers for the land itself, and time for our own rest and renewal. Here they emerge as economic, as well as ecological.
The shmitah described in Re’eh is debt remission — no usury or gouging, no falling too far behind, no mounting intergenerational inequities that constrain entire lifetimes by skin color or zip code. “There shall be no needy among you” (Deuteronomy 15:4) – Torah’s ideal is attainable once we internalize and implement its values.
But until then, “If there’s a needy person among you, you mustn’t harden your heart nor shut your hand from your needy kin” (Deuteronomy 15:7). After all, some of what appears as yours is really theirs:
“Sometimes that which is due to the poor has been entrusted by God to the rich instead — and all their riches are in truth a collection of what originally had been allocated to the poor. When the rich person keeps this in mind, they will never begrudge any support extended to the poor” (Or HaChayim, 18th
We should be generous, by nature. “Give readily, and have no regrets when doing so” (Deuteronomy 15:10). This will undergird our fresh start as a covenantal society: This time we’ll appreciate and share. This time we’ll focus on others — and in being less self-centered, we’ll uplift ourselves.
And those intergenerational inequities that we’ve let fester for far too many shmitah-less cycles? This fresh start will finish them off. As civil rights legend Fannie Lou Hamer taught, “Nobody’s free until everyone’s free.” Injustice and inequality harm all, including we who cling too tightly to what is not rightly ours.
The Torah’s next lines make this clear, in ancient idiom: even if you “own” an enslaved person, “in the seventh year, you shall set them free. And when you set them free, do not let them go empty-handed: furnish them from the flock, threshing floor, and vat, with which God has blessed you” (Deuteronomy 15:12-14).
Inequities will exist, but must be time limited. Those once disadvantaged must have true equality of opportunity. Old patterns and structures must be released. Reparations must be made to the oppressed and the wronged. For anyone to enjoy a fresh start, everyone must get that chance.
And lest this sound too dreamy, too modern, too political to really be Torah, our section continues: “Recall that you were slaves in the Land of Egypt, and your God redeemed you — therefore I enjoin this commandment upon you, this day” (Deuteronomy 15:15).
History and Torah align. We must release what’s unjust and unsustainable to ultimately release ourselves. Every new year. And certainly “at the end of every seventh year” — which is upon us.
Rabbi Fred Scherlinder Dobb is rabbi of Adat Shalom Reconstructionist Congregation, in Bethesda.