August 10, 2018


8.10.2018 Weekly Torah Portion

Parashat Re’eh

Resentment is that bitter indignation at believing we have been treated unfairly. It’s what happens when the stories we tell ourselves about what we deserve do not match reality, and we say to ourselves, “This is so unfair!” We all carry resentments: towards our supervisors for passing us over for a raise or a promotion, towards our parents for all the ways they were not the parents we wanted them to be, towards the baby who wakes us up in the middle of the night, even towards ourselves for not living up to our own aspirations. We all carry resentments, and in recovery, we try to manage them, lest they swallow up our goodwill and eat away at our right actions – lest the Holiness that is in relationship becomes hidden.

The Holiness that is in relationship is highlighted in Shemita, the practice every seven years to release us from debts, when creditors “must let go of the due that they claim from another person” (Devarim 15:2). Shemita tells us, yes, business must go on most of the time – with people lending and borrowing from one another – but once every seven years, remember what’s really important: relationship.

Imagine as a creditor having loaned someone money to buy a car in the fifth year of the cycle. Maybe they’ve paid you back half the amount owed by the Shemita year, and you must forgive them the rest. Not only is it a financial loss for you, it feels disrespectful and downright unfair.

Why would the Torah purposefully create an unfair law? The only reason given is that Shemita is for God: כִּֽי־קָרָ֥א שְׁמִטָּ֖ה לַֽיהוָֽה׃. In other words, because what matters to God is not money, or even fairness. What matters to God is how we treat one another; what matters to God is relationships.
In the Babylonian Talmud, Shevuot 49a, Rav Giddel teaches in the name of Rav that when the verse describing Shemita begins וְזֶה֮ דְּבַ֣ר הַשְּׁמִטָּה֒, “this is the matter/word of Shemita,” and uses the word devar, literally “word,” it is teaching that Shemita is not only about money, it’s also about debts of words. According to the Talmud, debts of words are oaths and promises.

Debts of words are also the stories we tell ourselves: about fairness and how we deserve a raise, deserve perfect parents, deserve a full night’s sleep, or deserve perfect behavior from ourselves. These are the stories that lead us to resentment when what we think we deserve is not delivered by the Universe or by the people around us, or even by ourselves. These are the stories that cause us to become the creditor for a psychological debt that will go unpaid – until we release it.

Just as it is difficult for the creditor of money to release the debt, so too, it is difficult to release a resentment, a psychological debt. It requires me, as creditor, to tell myself a new and uncomfortable story in which I am small: that the wheels of the Universe turn without me, that fairness is a myth, that I am not perfect, that while people can generously give of themselves, they don’t owe me anything. And with the new story comes the indescribable “relief at facing ourselves,” as Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions explains about Step Four. This new story is the humbling and uncomfortable and freeing gift of Shemita.
And perhaps most humbling of all, that God, the Universe, Something-Bigger-Than-Me is my creditor – for the very air I breathe. Then thank God our debts are released – because how could we ever repay that mercy?

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Kerry