On Debt

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The bible, we often hear, has little relevance to modern, metropolitan life. It records the myths and rituals of primitive men, who lived a hand-to-mouth existence and knew nothing of the Universe. Why should we live our lives according to the fantasies of Neolithic shepherds? In these days of factory farms and cloned sheep, they have a point. But perhaps not all the green Arcadia of the mind is yet concreted over. In the space of a few recent days, two of the biggest bosses in football have issued important dairy-related statements. First it was Rafa Benitez, denouncing the changes made at Liverpool since his departure:

We have a saying in Spanish: ‘White liquid in a bottle has to be milk.’ What does this mean?

Note the classic midrashic style: ‘We have a saying’, replicating the traditional ‘As it is said’; then a quotation; then a rhetorical question. And after that came the meandering exegesis, seemingly unconnected to the opening. Rafa described the way the owners had set about changing the structure of the club and replacing the personnel – including him. He then returned, somewhat cryptically, to his proverb, concluding, ‘So, white liquid in a bottle: milk. You will know who is to blame.’

His arch-rival Alex Ferguson lost no time responding in kind. Addressing Wayne Rooney’s complaints about United’s lack of big signings, he gave us a pastoral parable of his own:

Sometimes you look in a field and you see a cow and you think it’s a better cow than you’ve got in your own field… and it never really works out that way. It’s probably the same cow, or not as good as your own cow.  How to interpret these remarks? The obvious allusions are, in the first case, to the midrash Shir HaShirim Rabbah I:19, which likens the unique truth of the Torah to the purity of milk; and in the second case to Genesis 41.1, where we find the grass-isn’t-greener cow-next-door of Fergie’s fancy cropping up in Pharaoh’s dreams. In his sleep, the Egyptian monarch sees seven beautiful cows grazing on the bank of the Nile, whereupon seven ugly cows turn up and eat them alive. Joseph interprets this as an omen: seven years of plenty will be followed by seven of drought, and Pharaoh had better hoard his grain while he can. The theme of financial prudence reminds us of the common thread linking the staff changes at Liverpool with the lack of world-class signings at United: debt.  For the travails of both clubs result from leveraged buyouts, in which businessmen used the clubs themselves as collateral for loans to buy them with — and now the monstrous interest payments are swallowing their transfer budgets whole.  To find out more about the psychology of debt, let’s scroll a few pages back, to another tale of seven-year sentences: Genesis 29-32, where we find Joseph’s father, Jacob, tending his flocks.  Or, rather, tending his uncle Laban’s flocks. Jacob has spent the best years of his life labouring for this gonif Laban, who’s not the only Jewish crook in history, but is surely the only one to carry a crook.  And as far as his nephew’s concerned, he really puts the ewes in ‘usury’. Every morning, when the other shepherds get to work, Jacob’s already in his uncle’s field; every evening, he’s still shearing away when they’re back home tucking into a nice fleshpot. And the amazing thing is, he’s not even getting paid for it.  No, Jacob’s working off a debt. He put in seven long years for the hand of Laban’s daughter, curvaceous Rachel, but got scammed into taking her sister, Leah with the lazy eye. That got his goat, alright. But when he complained, his uncle told him to stop bleating and put in another seven years for Rachel. And Jake, that romantic — that fanatic — said yes! Only this time, he asked for the girl up front. So fourteen years and twelve kids down the line, here he is, still shvitzing in the sun under the iron yoke of debt.

You might say he’s a madman, and maybe you’d be right. But then, you don’t know Rachel. Ah, what a woman.  Fourteen years haven’t touched her, three kids neither (though it does help when you can delegate a couple of them to your maidservant). But it’s not just about beauty. Working to win Rachel defines stole his brother’s birthright. She gives him an identity, a history to be proud of.  And anyway, what is time, what is toil, when you’re already in heaven? For each seven years ‘seemed to him but a few days, such was his love for her’.

If you’re a fan of United or (until their apparent rescue) Liverpool, you can probably sympathise with Jacob. You pay a fortune for transport, ticket, a scrap of red polyester or a Plasticine pie, but little of your hard-earned cash will be invested in players: it’s all just servicing debt. To the owners, the club is a cash cow, there to be milked for all it’s worth. And yet, for the most part, you can’t stop going, can’t stop caring. Too much of that history and identity, you see. Love-sick fool, you know you’re getting stiffed, but the lure is too powerful. Perhaps, like Jacob, deep down you enjoy the exploitation. After all, what better way to prove your love than to suffer for it?

As we’ve found out of late, though, it’s not just our football clubs that are in danger of being ruined by debt. After a feast of borrowing that lasted — as it happens — seven years, a fiscal famine is upon us all. Such indignities may be shocking in the West, but terminally indebted governments are nothing new elsewhere. And when the country’s broke, you realize that modern civilisation has not moved as far from the farm as it seemed. One winter in Soviet Moscow, the rumour went round that a meat delivery had arrived from the collective farm. Real sausage! Within minutes, a vast queue wound round Peshkov the butcher’s, like an anaconda round a cow.  But after an hour, the manager came out and announced, ‘Comrades, there is less meat than we thought. Can all the Jews leave.’ Out go the Jews. Two hours later, the manager faces the crowd again: ‘I’m afraid there’s even less than we thought — only enough for Party members.’ Half the crowd shuffles off.  An hour later: ‘There really is very little meat. Anyone who didn’t fight in the October Revolution must go.’ Now just two old men are left. Three hours later, as darkness falls, the manager emerges:

‘Comrades, there will be no sausage after all today.’ ‘You see,’ says one old man to the other, ‘The Jews get the best deal.’

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Having spent twenty-one years as a rabbi in his native Morecambe, and a brief spell as inside-right for Preston North End, Rabbi Savage is now a free-lance Talmudic Scholar.

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