I still remember the name of the woman who processed my final student loan payment over the phone. It was Kaffeine. With a K. Bless her.
Though my rabbinical school tuition was heavily subsidized (that’s one place our URJ dues go), it still took me seven years to pay off the loans I took out for my living expenses. This timeframe was only possible because during those years I worked full time, lived in a region of the country with a low cost of living, didn’t buy a house, and had no dependents. My only other big expense was the payments on my Honda Civic, a small red sedan that literally swayed when a truck passed it on the highway, and that I would likely still be driving today had it not been totaled on my way here from Poughkeepsie. I was blessed with the privilege of having my undergraduate education covered by scholarships as well as my parents’ hard work and generosity. The Affordable Care Act allowed me to stay on their health insurance until the year I was ordained.
Seven years is kind of biblical. That’s how long Jacob worked to marry his beloved Rachel. And then, because his father-in-law was probably the first predatory lender, he had to work another seven years after he was tricked into marrying Leah instead.
As it turns out, loan forgiveness is also biblical, even if it seems contrary to the American myth of self-reliance. And it is also meant to occur every seven years. In this week’s Torah portion, Re’eh, we read:
“Every seventh yearyou shall practice remission of debts. This shall be the nature of the remission: all creditors shall remit the due that they claim from their fellow [Israelites]; they shall not dun their fellow [Israelites] or kin, for the remission proclaimed is of יהוה” (Deuteronomy 15:1-2).
This commandment leads directly into an important treatise on poverty that begins:
“There shall be no needy among you—since your God יהוה will bless you in the land that your God יהוה is giving you as a hereditary portion—” (Deuteronomy 15: 4).
Throughout the Bible, we find guidelines as to how to provide for the vulnerable: the widow, the orphan, the stranger, the public servant (Levites), and the poor. Although there is a recognition that there will always be people in need, laws such as the remission of debts are clearly meant to safeguard against the creation of a permanent underclass. They also remind us that ,in a land of plenty, no one should be shamed for needing help.
A few verses later, we read: “If, however, there is a needy person among you … do not harden your heart and shut your hand against your needy kin. Rather, you must open your hand and lend whatever is sufficient to meet the need” (Deuteronomy 15:7-8).
The rabbis have an epic debate over the meaning of this last phrase, dei machsoro asher yechsar lo: sufficient to meet the need, or “whatever the person is lacking.” Does it mean the bare necessities? Or does it mean maintaining someone in the lifestyle to which they were accustomed? Surprisingly, the rabbis lean towards the latter. In some cases, dei machsoro meant providing someone with a spouse! In one extreme example, Hillel the Elder provides a person “of noble descent” with a horse to ride on and a servant to run in front of them, once even performing the menial task himself (Ketubot 67b).
The message we can take from this is that not that we should provide horses for the poor, but rather that one should not be shamed for wanting things, whether that’s the basic necessities, security about the future, or even a few simple pleasures.
After the announcement that the Biden Administration would cancel up to $10,000 in federal student loans for those making less that $125K (and an additional $10K for Pell Grant recipients), writer Anne Helen Petersen curated a handful of responses from borrowers.
Many of them talked about predatory interest rates—even after years of making payments, some of them still owed more than they had originally borrowed. But what struck me about most of their responses was what they wanted to do with their earnings, now that some of the burden of their student loans had been lifted from their shoulders.
There were no big spending sprees in the future. Rather, what people were celebrating was the possibility of buying their first home, growing their families, saving for retirement, paying off medical bills and other debts, and caring for their elderly parents. Some of these same desires might be what motivates people to take out loans for their education in the first place. It was the promise of being able to sustain oneself, and to be a responsible, contributing member of society.
One borrower said: “A 19 year old albatross on my neck, gone in an instant! …. No loan payment means more fresh fruit and veg in our fridge, more books for our boys and now I can afford to get new clothes too.”
Another borrower said: “When I was at the dentist last week… I realized that the idea of getting new bridges was FAR less terrifying a prospect because I could finally afford them. The future stress that my anxiety brain creates is gone. I equate it to getting a new car after you’ve been driving a junker for many years. The subconscious stress kicking around in your brain that goes “what will I do if my car breaks down?” is no more.”
Underneath all of these stories there seemed to be a silent refrain. After years of not knowing if they could meet their basic needs, in an instant, it became okay to want things.
Rabbi Aviva Richman points out that, earlier in this portion, we are given instructions as to how to celebrate the pilgrimage festivals if we live far away, such that shlepping produce or livestock would be impractical. We are told to convert the items into money, then,
“Wrap up the money and take it with you to the place that your God יהוה has chosen, and spend the money on anything you want—cattle, sheep, wine, or other intoxicant, or anything you may desire [asher taavah nafshecha, literally, “that which your soul craves”]. And you shall feast there, in the presence of your God יהוה, and rejoice with your household” (Deuteronomy 14:25-26).
Rabbi Richman writes: “The mitzvah is not only to buy food to eat in the central place, but to specifically buy food that you crave. It is impossible to fulfill this mitzvah without wanting something, and knowing what it is that you desire.”
Our parasha reminds us that it’s not shameful to need help, but also that it’s okay to want things. Moreover, it charges us with the responsibility of building and maintaining a world where we can respond to our own needs and wants, as well as the needs and wants of others. The news this week is a major step towards realizing that vision.
Rabbi Leah R. Berkowitz