by Dr. Yosef Rosen, Jewish Studies Teacher

When political events, our Torah cycle, the Jewish calendar, and our academic calendar all sync up, you know a Jewish Studies teacher is going to pounce and ask what meaning we can make from this rare conjunction.   

This week, President Biden announced a sweeping, student-debt annulment policy that will provide relief for millions of Americans. Biden is far from the first leader to forgive loans. Records going back thousands of years show that kings in the Ancient Near East would frequently forgive their constituents’ loans and thereby reinforce their allegiance. The Torah, in this week’s Parsha, shifts that dynamic.

Loan-annulment is not meant to be a political favor doled out by kings when it serves their interests, but is meant to be a foundational part of social economics—every seven years, God tells the Israelites, “every creditor shall remit the due that he claims for his fellow” (Devarim 15:2). God’s mandate that this equality-centered policy is enacted on a seven-year rhythm, ensures that social inequality never gets too out of whack. So far we’ve seen how this week’s Torah portion can shed light on current politics, but what is the connection to the Jewish calendar? 

We are currently coming to the close of the shemitah year, when Jews would traditionally cease agricultural labor and forgive all outstanding debts. But the Rabbis of yore split the timing of these two aspects of the shemita year: Agricultural rest begins on the Rosh Ha-Shanah that inaugurates the shemitah, but debt-annulment doesn’t occur until the Rosh Ha-Shanah that concludes the shemitah year! Hence, even though most of the shemitah year is coming to a close, its economic power is just ahead of us—just in time to coincide with the president’s policy. 

The beginning of a new school year also offers a type of debt-cancellation. No student has any work “due”, any “outstanding” assignments, any “missing” homework. Each student is thus able to approach the coming year from a place of potential and promise. This intersection of several different timelines—political, academic, Torah, and the Hebrew calendar—sheds new light on each and offers us an opportunity to reflect on the relationship between our different identities and experiences.