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‘…When he (Laban) he saw that Jacob was unattended, he concluded that he carried great sums of money in his girdle, and he threw his arms about his waist to find out whether his supposition was true. (…) But Jacob said to him: “Thou thinkest I have money. Nay, thou art mistaken, I have but words.” (Louis Ginzberg, The Legends of the Jews).
The man of the Antiquity had more access to the mystery of life. He lived in a world where men and women and “visible” beings were but a small part of the population capable of speech. The world was full of messages and symbols that were perceived in a deep and clear way. Many of those “words” were alive and real, but we have forgotten them, just like it happens when we learn a new language as adults and forget the one acquired in our childhood. And so we become poorer.
When he arrived in the land of his uncle Laban, Jacob ‘saw a well in the open country’ (Genesis 29:2). The well is a great symbol in the nomadic cultures. It was and it still is a sign of life, of nature’s regeneration, of the survival of the flocks and people, the place of relationships, communities, oases and meetings. And in the Bible it is at the wells that many encounters between men and women take place (Isaac, Moses, Jesus and the Samaritan woman). There is, in fact, an ancient and widespread familiarity of the figure of the woman and water (sirens, nymphs). Jacob, too, meets his cousin Rachel at a well while she is tending the flock (‘for she was a shepherd’, 29:9), and was at once enchanted by her: ‘…Jacob kissed Rachel and began to weep aloud.’ (29:11)
It is during the long and complex time period spent by Jacob at Laban’s house that the word “wage” appears for the first time in the Bible. ‘Tell me what your wages should be.’ (29:15) The first payment is a wife: ‘I’ll work for you seven years in return for your younger daughter Rachel.’ (29:18) Of course there are some traces of the ancient world (that we do not like) in this wage as daughters were considered “merchandise” (31:14), but there is also one of the most beautiful definitions of human love hiding between the lines like a pearl: ‘So Jacob served seven years to get Rachel, but they seemed like only a few days to him because of his love for her.’ (29:20)
In these complex and engaging chapters Jacob, the wage earning man, was not a free man: he was a foreigner without property, a dependent worker who was in a social and legal condition that is similar to that of a servant (in the pre-modern world only the property of land could generate wealth and status). But at the end of the agreed ten years, the contracted wage did not work out: Laban deceives him (a rather familiar move for Jacob) and does not give him Rachel who ‘had a lovely figure and was beautiful’ to be his wife, but Leah, his first-born daughter who ‘had weak eyes’ (29:17), and asks Jacob to stay in his service for another seven years to get Rachel for his wife. Jacob stayed because ‘his love for Rachel was greater than his love for Leah’ (29:30). Another seven years passed and Jacob wanted to return to Canaan. Laban has to pay him his due: ‘Name your wages, and I will pay them.’ (30:28) They make another agreement to determine the part of the flock that will belong to Jacob. It is a very tricky contract (30:31-43) that will eventually compromise their relationship (31:1-2). Therefore, this second contracted wage between Laban and Jacob produces conflicts and injustice.
Contracts may produce more and more inequalities and conflicts because they become the means for impoverishing the weaker party in the exchange. The weak and the strong do exist and will remain such even when they sign contracts “freely”. It is also because of this that for biblical humanism, contracts are not enough (even though they are necessary and often indispensable): it calls for pacts instead.
This, too, is the message of the outcome of the conflict dialogue between Laban and Jacob. Laban catches up with Jacob who is fleeing and his nephew pours all the injustices on him that he had suffered from his uncle who ‘changed my wages ten times’ (31:41). But at the end of that hard dialogue, Laban says: ‘Come now, let’s make a covenant, you and I’ (31:44). After the covenant with JHWH, and those with the foreign peoples, here is the first alliance between people of the same community, a pact between two people who finally appear as equals. The contracted wage did not prove to be a good instrument of peace and justice for them, the pact will be. In all pacts the symbols are essential: ‘So Jacob took a stone and set it up as a pillar.’ (31:45) He set up the first pillar in Bethel (28:18) as an altar after the dream of the ‘stairway’ to heaven; and now he erects a second one for a pact with another man. Inter-human pacts are not worth smaller pillars because they too celebrate the Alliance, life, love – perhaps it is also for this reason that the Catholic Church inserted marriage (celebrated by bride and groom) among the sacraments, next to the Eucharist.
But the symbols of this pact do not end here: Jacob then ‘said to his relatives, »Gather some stones.« So they took stones and piled them in a heap, and they ate there by the heap.’ Laban said, ‘This heap is a witness between you and me today.’ 31:52) Isaac, too, ate with Abimelek (26:30) after stipulating their alliance with each other. To eat together after pacts was and is still much more than a “work lunch” (even if there is an echo of those ancient pacts in all work lunches). To share the food is to share life, it is the communion becoming food, too. The wedding reception is also an important element of the pact, as it is the community expression of other important words of life. A reconciliation, a statement of love become more powerful if they are accompanied by a dinner, a celebration of conviviality, perhaps prepared together in chasteness – I don’t think that these good pacts should be celebrated in private or hidden clubs (it is there, however, that the wrong type of pacts are celebrated, we can see that every day). Even after funerals in many cultures it was customary to eat together with the relatives of the deceased one because that shared food became shared pain and the renewal of a community pact – our funerals are sad, but the post-funeral meals consumed in solitude are extremely sad.
Our era will be remembered for many wonderful things but also for the invention of fast food and the sandwich eaten alone during lunch break. We all know what a great difference there is in terms of joy and the quality of life between a lunch shared with colleagues and a lunch consumed alone. When we eat with a good colleague-friend, along with the calories we “eat” relational goods, too, that nourish us no less than food and make us do better at work, in our lives and in terms of our health (data prove it). A sign of the non-sustainability of our economic model is that there are too many sandwiches eaten in solitude.
In the really important deeds human words are essential but not sufficient. We want to hear nature, heavens, our ancestors, the angels, all the world talk to us. When there is nothing that really counts (a new enterprise, a school, a hospital…) behind a contract, a toast will not suffice. I have got to know civil entrepreneurs and co-operators who invited their newly hired employee for dinner. During that meal consumed together they shared the history of the company and its original values with them, thereby reviving and extending the founding pact. You cannot become travel mates without the cum panis, without the shared bread.
Contracts that bring about good life and endure in time are preceded or followed by pacts. An enterprise born solely of contracts will either become a pact – often after overcoming a crisis – or it will die. In traditional societies, pacts were implicit in the communities that produced contracts of businesses and co-operatives that, not by accident, were born out of families or shared political or spiritual belonging. Our democracy and institutions, too, were born out of pacts blooming from the tears and blood of wars and dictatorships. And for this reason the contracts generated from those pacts have been strong and good, and they make us live still.
But what foundation are we giving our new contracts, the new banks, the new parties, the new enterprises? Where are our pacts, our symbols, our pillars, our cum panis? How long more are we going to be happy with having mortgages and lawyers as “witnesses”? This “lack of foundation” is the most profound reason for the many crises of our time. Our generation is still placing its own pacts on an ethical, spiritual and symbolic heritage that was built throughout many centuries of civilisation. But we are running short of it. If we wish to start regenerating it, we should begin to give a symbolic foundation to our relationships by re-learning to share the good bread.
After the pact and the meal of peace, ‘the angels of God met him’.
by Luigino Bruni
published in Avvenire on 18/05/2014
Translated by Eszter Kató