It’s almost half over!
When the shmita year, a once in seven-year opportunity to transform our world, began this past Rosh Hashanah, rabbis, educators, and communities across the Jewish world were buzzing with ideas about new ways to implement the heavenly values of spiritual renewal, release from debt, letting the land lay fallow, and more.
But shmita is not just a Rosh Hashanah phenomena; it is a yearlong project. Now, as we find ourselves in the middle of the shmita year, we must ask ourselves: Are we actualizing shmita values?
Among the practices of the shmita year, erasing oppressive debt — or, shmita kessafim, the release of money — is one of the most powerful. We learn, “At the end of every seven years, you shall celebrate the year of release (shmita). This is the release: Every lender shall forgive any debt owed by his neighbor and brother when God’s shmita year comes.” (Deuteronomy 15:1-6)
A close look at these verses reveals an important lesson. The moral action rests on the creditor, rather than the borrower. Debt is often a shameful secret. And helping someone out of a crippling debt — especially if that debt is not a result of personal failing but a product of larger forces — can be redemptive.
Lifting people from debt is not just a moral or spiritual issue. In biblical times, those trapped in debt would eventually wind up as slaves. A year when debt is forgiven stops that cycle.
How do we apply this in 2015?
Today, 12 million Americans are trapped every year in the deleterious cycle of trying to recover from payday loans — small loans marketed as a quick, easy way to tide borrowers over until the next payday. Though payday loans are marketed this way, the typical borrower becomes increasingly more indebted, often for longer periods of time. On average, borrowers make nine payday loan transactions over the course of a year, paying out annual interest rates of more than 400 percent.
These loans cripple members of low-to-moderate-income communities, seniors on fixed incomes, and members of the U.S. Armed Forces. The payday debt trap ensnares Americans of all races, religions, and politics. Payday loans are often marketed specifically to vulnerable communities and once individuals take out such a loan, they often become more vulnerable to additional loans to cover the original loan. This practice squeezes dollars out of America’s poor and vulnerable for years and years. While these men and women do not end up in the metal chains of slavery, they may experience divorce, health problems, emotional difficulty, homelessness, or, most tragically, suicide.
When I first heard the story of someone who took out a $300 payday loan to pay for groceries for her children and then wound up paying thousands of dollars of interest on that loan, I was shocked and saddened. When I heard dozens more of these stories, I became angry and committed to taking action.
As a rabbi, a Jew, and an American, I am committed to spending this shmita year fighting the payday debt trap. Just a few weeks ago, I had the honor of joining a coalition of 80 faith leaders from 22 states in Washington D.C. We engaged in three days of study and action to close the payday debt trap. The trip, organized by the Center for Responsible Lending, a non-partisan nonprofit that seeks to end predatory lending, is part of a nationwide campaign. We called on Congress to create a national interest rate cap of 36 percent for payday loans. We also called on the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the government watchdog that looks out for customers of banks and lenders, to issue a strong new rule that would require payday lenders to do what other, responsible businesses do already — check if a customer can repay a loan before making that loan.
Join me during this shmita year to address this challenge. Our Torah instructs us to take profound, heavenly ideas and make them real in our broken world. This shmita year, let’s end the payday loan debt trap.email print