Transcending Debt

For the last three year’s it’s been tradition to read a chapter of the Pirkei Avot–the Jewish Ethics of the Fathers–every summer. Except last summer I never finished the third book. And this summer I haven’t touched any of them.

Unfinished business delights no one, and I’m fond of tradition, so with these last four weeks of summer, I’m returning to the Pirkei Avot and bringing it to completion.

3.20 Yet another teaching of his [Rabbi Akiva’s]:

Everything is a loan against a pledge; a net is spread over all the living.

The shop is open, the shopkeeper extends credit, the ledger is open, the hand records, whoever would borrow may do so; the collectors make their rounds daily, they exact payment from everyone, with or without consent; they have a reliable record.

The verdict is a just one, and everything is ready for the final accounting.

One thing I enjoy about these mishneh is that no matter how unrelated each part might seem, together they weave a wondrous tale that can talk to anyone–if they’ll listen. They may bind me closer to my faith, but as I can learn from listening to another’s experiences and their beliefs, so too can others gain insight from sharing mine.

On the surface this sounds like a teaching about money: Every action in the modern, and even the ancient, world requires some exchange of money–to buy food, housing, transportation. Education and exploration also come at an expense. So we shop, and money changes hands, and debts are collected–every cent accounted for objectively, indiscriminately. In the end all spare change returns to the hands from which it came.

Except the rabbis were fond of metaphor.

And this is not a teaching about money.

No doubt we can reap generous lessons from a surface observation–fairness in lending, responsibility toward returning one’s debts, and so forth–but with every part taken together, I see a much more gruesome and unrelenting image unfolding.

This is no teaching about taxes. It is a teaching about life and death itself.

Everything–our lives–is a loan against a pledge–a pledge against God, who has given us existence, who has crafted this world and allowed us to live in it–a net is spread over all the living–for above us he towers, always watchful, always present, imprisoning us in this expansiveness so crafted perfectly for our presence.

More so he provides for us–The shop is open–and he provides for us endlessly everything we need–the shopkeeper extends credit. Except we are not merely taking at will, thieving as one might call it, for although the ledger is open, the hand records. We may not mind our actions in this life, we may not take account of all we ingest and every item we consume, but God surely does. Karma on a cosmic scale, what we give and what we take, it is transcribed in this book of life for future judgment.

We are not made special on account of this, however, and we alone are not the only ones shopping: whoever would borrow may do so. On some level we must show gratitude for the opportunities we have been given, but we must never assume they were given to us alone–for everyone may join us, if they wish to, if they need to.

Nor is this credit endless, like time itself. The collectors make their rounds daily–I imagine robed reapers, tattered shawls drifting in the echoes of the stirring air they make as they float along, scythes in hand as they search for those whose credit has run dry–they exact payment from everyone, with or without consent–then that curved crescent of shining silver cuts the air, and a man in his prime falls to his knees, eyes turned skyward before he tumbles to the ground. I catch a glimpse of his hollow smile as he slips away, those greens eyes reflecting mine, so very much like mine they might as well be my own.

They have a reliable record. No one escapes our human fate.

If this is what the mishneh teaches, it begs the question, is this everything we’ve learned? Time is given at conception, and it ends in death–our death, no less, the same end we must all face in the moment we finish life and leave the living.

But what have we learned? What do we learn?

Against my wishes, this last year I failed to avoid the gavel of collegiate life and at last was required to take out a loan in order to pay my tuition and continue attending college. Sadly, it promised not to be the last time, and I imagine until my education is complete, another loan will follow annually. My sadness is secondary to the acceptance of this fact: I value education too highly to refuse it to remove my name from the ledger. It shall be worth it, in the end, and every moment in class and on campus, I strive to make the most of this pledge, a duty not only to myself and my future finances, but also to all those who have thus far contributed to my education–the scholarship committees, the financial aid offices, the taxpayers who have funded the Pell grants that have taken me this far already.

In the end my actions shall be of equal worth to these debts, and though grudgingly perhaps, not ungratefully I shall repay them.

Time is a grant we cannot repay. What we take in credit we can never return, and should we dispose of these seconds into moments not worth remembering, moments that tear us down and unravel us, we have poorly fulfilled the pledge we’ve made upon acquiring these funds–the potential we’ve been given through the act of being given life itself.

Our actions accumulate into our own end–The verdict is a just one–and in the end, what matters is not so much what we’ve done, but what we haven’t done. Did we forsake the things we love? The people and places that made us and shaped us? Did we use our credit wisely and invest in moments that mattered?

It does not matter so much what is or what was or even what will be, since in the end, everything is ready for the final accounting. But will we grudgingly if gratefully repay these indebted moments, limitless eternity in repose, or will we meet our end on the other side of a jury, clinging to our last moments, grasping these things we never had?

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