AJWS Dvar Tzedek: Parshat Vayechi
Following the burial of their father Jacob in Parshat Vayechi, Joseph’s brothers worry aloud: “What if Joseph still bears a grudge against us!?” Despite the good grace Joseph had shown them upon their reunification, the debt they owe him for having sold him into slavery so many years prior still lingers. The eleven brothers feel so burdened by this debt that they are willing to do anything—even become slaves themselves—in order to be free from it.
Many of the medieval rabbinic commentators believed that these fears were well founded. Rabbeinu Bachya, the 14th-century Spanish scholar, notes that in all of Torah there is not one single reference to Joseph actually forgiving his brothers. In not ever explicitly forgiving them, Joseph allowed their debt to cast its shadow of anxiety over them in perpetuity.
Similarly, many countries in the Global South have the threat of debt casting an onerous shadow over their lands—debt owed to international financial institutions like the World Bank and IMF and to wealthy countries like our own. Many of these debts were first incurred decades ago—often by corrupt or despotic regimes—in order to offset collapsing commodity prices. Paradoxically, the money that nations borrowed to support their development is now the stumbling block to progress. Because these loans incur interest greater than the amounts debtors are able to pay off, countries become stuck in an endless trap of interest payments to the West. And every penny paid by the Global South in interest payments to Western banks is money that cannot be invested in their own development and their future. They, like Joseph’s brothers, are enslaved by their indebtedness.
Although both situations appear bleak, the Torah provides a model for stopping the perpetuation of limitless debt. We are taught that every 50th year—called the Jubilee—all debts are to be released and all property returned to its rightful owner.5 The Jubilee is not a blanket free-for-all or amnesty from bad financial decisions; it is a tool for ensuring freedom from unrelenting debts, redemption from the oppression of perpetual burdens. The Jubilee year serves to regularly restore equality and equity among communities.
Taking the biblical Jubilee as its namesake, Jubilee USA, an alliance of more than 75 religious and human rights-focused groups, works to ensure the definitive cancellation of the crushing debts that loom over the heads of the world’s poorest nations. Support for their work, and that of all those laboring on behalf of debt cancellation—including AJWS—is an important part of global justice activism.
The impact of debt relief is profound: debt cancellation allows developing nations to focus on the provision of basic human needs such as education and health care for their citizens. For example, debt cancellation in Uganda resulted in a doubling of school enrollment; in Mozambique it allowed for the vaccination of five hundred thousand children.6 In Haiti, forgiveness of bilateral debt to the U.S. and the International Monetary Fund has enabled the country to better focus on recovering from the 2010 earthquake.
Unfortunately, Joseph never forgave his brothers’ debt to him, and the enduring acrimony and fear was a stumbling block for the rest of their lives. As many of us have experienced in our own personal relationships, we can never fully move on until we completely let go of our claims to the past. We cannot be released from the burden of regret until those to whom we are indebted forgive us explicitly. The same is true in a global context. May we learn from Joseph and his brothers’ experience, and work to free developing nations from the oppression of debt, building towards a better and brighter future for the entire planet.
To read the full commentary and podcast, click here.