This week’s Torah portion offers some great financial advice. Debt is an ever increasing problem in the United States and in Israel. People live beyond their financial means. Although each individual must show personal financial restraint, we learn from parashat behar that there is also a responsibility on the lender as well. This week’s sidrah deals with the laws of shemittah, (the seventh year when one must let the land lie fallow) and with the year of Jubilee. If someone enters into a debt and ends up not being able to pay off this debt, we are taught in parashat mishpatim that he must serve his creditor for a period of no more than six years regardless of the amount of debt. It is important to know that this debtor is not treated as a slave, but as a hired labor,
“If your brother becomes impoverished to you and is sold to you, you shall not work as a slave-laborer; but as a employee, as a resident he will be with you until the year of Jubilee he shall work with you.” Lev. 25:39-40
This fact would cause the creditor not to extend too much credit to an individual because he knows up front that if the borrower defaults that he will only receive a maximum of six years of labor regardless of the amount he owes.
In a similar way when one purchases a piece of land (in our language, lease) the buyer and seller realize that in the year of Jubilee the land will return to the original owner regardless of if the buyer paid the full amount of the lease price or not. Even if the buyer was not able to fulfill his payment, the debt is canceled as well in the year of Jubilee. Therefore the seller must take all of these factors under consideration. What would be the result? The creditor would not give to someone a loan that he felt he would not be able to repay in a relatively short amount of time.
Today companies that issue credit to individuals do so without much concern with the person’s ability to pay. The length of loans can be for exceedingly long periods of time and people grow overwhelmed with the amount of debt and the years that it will take to pay back the money. More and more people are defaulting on loans and this is creating a serious problem for the economy. Although the borrower is responsible to pay back money, the Torah offers some relief for he who over extends himself and warns the lender to be cautious in extending too much credit an individual. If the lender is careless he will suffer financially for his disregard of sound stewardship principles.
In short, the lender must not only think about himself in the business agreement; that is if he is receiving top dollar, but also consider the financial situation of the borrower and see if this transaction is appropriate for him. This is simply another example of the Torah teaching us that we are indeed our brother’s keeper and we must look out for others and not just ourselves.
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