The Song of the Wandering Aramean

The Dawn of Midnight/21 - Truth of life and salvation meet on the way

by Luigino Bruni

published in Avvenire on 10/09/2017

170910 Geremia 21 2 rid“Even if you don’t read it, you are in the Bible .“

E. Canetti, Il cuore segreto dell'orologio (The Secret Heart of the Clock)

When a community is experiencing a deep, long and uncertain crisis, what is really at stake is the past-future link. Because if it is true that the only good future is the one that turns the past into a blessing, redeems it and frees it from the trap of nostalgia, it is equally true that without a good history of yesterday there are no new words today to talk about a good and credible tomorrow. Individual and collective crises are famines of the future and famines of the past, because it is the friendship between the past and the future that makes the present beautiful and fruitful in every stage of life. Even when the sunset is approaching, and the shadow of the past becomes very long, memories feed us and accompany us at all times. The past alone is not enough for the present, no matter how great and wonderful it was. We should wait for a new word, to see the face of a daughter again who will come today, too. We should hope to see, in the end, the face of God that we cherished in our heart’s desire for a whole life. In order to live the time of crisis well, it is therefore essential to have an exciting future that blossoms from a reconciled present with a past lived as a gift and promise, beyond wounds, disappointments and failures. It is in the right reciprocity between roots and gems, between bereshit and eskaton that you really find the opportunity to continue generating life and future in the now.

“The word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord, after King Zedekiah had made a covenant with all the people in Jerusalem to make a proclamation of liberty to them, that everyone should set free his Hebrew slaves, male and female, so that no one should enslave a Jew, his brother” (Jeremiah 34:8-9). Chapter 34 of the Book of Jeremiah contains the account of an actual event that happened in Jerusalem during the Babylonian siege. Jeremiah receives a message that touches the heart of the social and political life of his people, because it concerns the salvation and liberation of men and women who were in the state of slavery. At that time, a Jew could become a slave to another Jew essentially because of debts. They were the so-called debt slaves. The Law received by Moses on Sinai (Exodus 21) said that economic slavery could not last more than six years (in the Code of Hammurabi, the maximum is three years: § 117).

In antiquity, unsettled debts were a very serious thing, but even more serious and alive was the collective and religious conscience that slavery could not last forever, that an economic failure should not become a condemnation for life, that the economy was not the last word - an awareness that we have lost over time. The liberation of slaves was therefore one of the great precepts linked to the institution of the shabbat: in the seventh year the slaves had to be made free again. Therefore, in Israel the liberation of the slaves was a sign and a memorial of the great liberation from slavery in Egypt, always present and very much alive in the collective conscience of the people. That first liberation from slavery was supposed to teach Israel that God is a liberator, that he does not want slave people but free people, that YHWH is the God of freedom. However, as also Jeremiah reminds them: “But your fathers did not listen to me or incline their ears to me” (34:14). That is, despite the Torah, the slaves were not freed, and many Jews found themselves in a prolonged state of slavery and enslavement, private property of other Jews, used as instruments and things to satisfy the needs of others. This episode, therefore, stems from a condition characterised by the generalized desecration of the Covenant and the Law, which makes a precept that should have been part of the ordinary life of the people stand out.

From the story we learn that the people of Israel first obey and slaves are actually freed. But shortly after that there is a real twist in the story, one of those which the Book of Jeremiah is getting us become used to (but we don't have to get used to them). Those who liberated their slaves “afterward (...) turned around and took back the male and female slaves they had set free, and brought them into subjection as slaves” (34:11). We are faced with an upside down type of repentance, a perverted conversion that cancels the earlier good conversion. The people who had finally listened to the prophet change their mind and restore the original, unequal condition. We do not know the reasons for this reconsideration - perhaps the loosening of the siege of Nebuchadnezzar that produced a new wave of nationalistic and anti-Jeremiah ideology. What we know is that that pact of liberation had not been internalized by the people, it had remained on the surface; and so a crisis or a dimming of fear was enough to violate that promise, the Covenant and the word of Jeremiah. That good and fair collective resolution did not have enough strength to last.

Durability is the crucial element in pacts. I can sincerely repent and promise to change my life, we can even do it together, but only time is the real proof that that conversion was deep enough to last and so bring about real change. Only God (and the true prophets) can change the reality of things through the word, by saying it. We too can and must begin a change by saying it, giving each other sincere words that express our desire and need to start again. But if and as long as those words do not become actions, deeds, things, flesh, hands and legs, we can go down to the street and retake the slaves that we have just freed, at any time. As long as time does not flow through our own flesh and into the flesh of others, transforming it, we cannot know the degree of truth of the words that we have pronounced sincerely. The truth of our words and those of others is revealed only when we have said them with our sweat, with our arms, with our tears - perhaps we will never know if some of the decisive words of our lives were true, but we can continue to hope that they were true, or at least wish for it.

But the most serious and tremendous perverse reconsiderations are the collective ones, when a community, a people, an entire generation denies the words and gestures that they had said in some luminous moments of their history. That’s when they re-erect the walls that were already demolished one day, close borders that one day, listening to a word, they themselves opened up. Again, we are letting children die in a sea that has become their enemy. After this sad episode of infidelity, the Book by Jeremiah immediately adds a wonderful story of the opposite sign. It is the story of the faithfulness of the Rechabites, which shows us yet another face of Jeremiah, through his genuine prophetic gesture: “Go to the house of the Rechabites and speak with them and bring them to the house of the Lord, into one of the chambers; then offer them wine to drink” (35:2). The Rechabites were a nomadic community, which at some point in its history had joined Israel and her religion. Their founder, two centuries before this meeting with Jeremiah, had ordered the community to remain nomadic, not to drink wine, not to build houses or cultivate vineyards - perhaps the lack of cultivating vineyards and no wine drinking were connected as precepts in basically self-sufficient communities. Jeremiah knows their law, yet he offers them some wine jugs: “But they answered, ‘We will drink no wine, for Jonadab the son of Rechab, our father, commanded us, ‘You shall not drink wine, neither you nor your sons forever. You shall not build a house; you shall not sow seed; you shall not plant or have a vineyard” (35:6-7). Jeremiah praises this faithful community, and prophesies about their future and fruitfulness. “thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Jonadab the son of Rechab shall never lack a man to stand before me” (35:19). Vocations are the sacrament of faithful communities.

At a time of widespread unfaithfulness, it is a nomadic community, immigrated to the city trying to escape a war, not belonging to the twelve tribes of Israel, to give us a testimony of faithfulness, and to offer consolation to the prophet. This praise for the Rechabites is not, however, improvisational in the Book of Jeremiah and in the Bible, narrating an ambivalent and generally critical relationship with the city. The first citizen was Cain, and the early faithful times of Israel are a tale of nomads and tents. When Israel finally lived in the promised land, the contamination of her religion also began, she suffered the influence of the contemporary cults and succumbed to the ever-present sin of idolatry. For the prophets Jerusalem is a holy city, but it is also a prostitute city. Settling down, building houses and planting vineyards was the beginning of a spiritual and identity decay of the people, which had reached the level of the widespread corruption that Jeremiah is telling us about.

Every love story begins with nomadic ways. Following a voice, we walk decisively and happily towards the future. Even if we cross through a desert we don't see it, because what we really see and hear is a mobile tent and a wonderful voice. Then we arrive at the promised land, we stop and settle down, we set up a worship, a temple, and we begin the construction of the "house, the vineyard, the fields". The nearby cultures and cults fascinate and seduce us, that voice seems increasingly distant, faint, we confuse it with the bewitching songs of idols. One night, or at times, we dream of that desert which is now far away, the first love, the poor tent, the purity of the first voice. Someone, after this very real dream, disassembles the buildings, leaves the fields and vineyards, and starts walking in a new desert, alone or with others. Others remain in the city, like Jeremiah, but they start singing the song of the desert and the bride. And they tell us that the wandering Aramean is the human condition, and that the true promise is not a land but a tent on an endless road. And when they meet a nomad, a migrant or a vagabond, they see a word of salvation in him, and they bless him.

Dedicated to Odilon Junior, pioneer and witness of the Economy of Communion in Brazil and in the world

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