August 10, 2012: Covenant, Not Contract (Eikev)

This week’s Torah portion begins: eikev tishme’un. “If you would but heed these rules faithfully, then Adonai your God will maintain faithfully for you the covenant that He made on oath to your forefathers: He will favor you and bless you and multiply you; He will bless the issue of your womb and the produce of your soil, your new grain and wine and oil, the calving of your herd and the lambing of your flock, in the land that He swore to your ancestors.” (Deuteronomy 7:12-13) In short, if we live up to our terms of the bargain, then God will live up to His end. Simple enough, right? After all, that’s what an agreement between two parties entails. You do this, and, in return, I’ll do that—and we have a relationship. Or do we?

Last week, I went to Vermont briefly to perform a wedding. As we stood under the Chuppah, I reminded the bride and groom that Judaism views matrimony as something far greater than an exchange of vows, or a series of promises, or a set of commitments. Marriage is a covenant, not a contract. Covenantal relationships are to contractual agreements as Shabbat is to the workday. Like Shabbat, a covenant is holy; like the workday, a contract is not. What is this added dimension of holiness?

The Torah recounts the establishment of three successive covenants between God and people, each one sealed with its distinctive sign (like the ring betokening the marital bond): the first, with Noah after the Flood, and by extension with all of humanity, characterized by the rainbow; the second, with Abraham, and by extension with all of his descendants, characterized by the rite of circumcision; and the final covenant, with Moses at Sinai, and by extension with the people of Israel. All subsequent Biblical covenants—the Davidic covenant, the covenant with Joshua, even the Deuteronomic covenant of this week’s Torah portion—merely ratify the earlier climactic Revelation at Sinai. (What is the mark of the Sinaitic covenant, by the way? Shabbat, as it is written: ot hi le’olam, “they shall keep the Shabbat throughout the ages as a covenant for all time; it shall be a sign for all time between Me and the children of Israel,” (Exodus 31:16-17) to which the Zionist poet Achad Ha’am famously added: “more than the Jews have kept Shabbat, Shabbat has kept the Jews.”)

So, what distinguishes covenant from contract? I think the difference lies in what happens if one party breaks terms of the agreement. Let’s say you make an offer to buy a house. You and the seller agree to certain terms: you settle on a certain price and make a deposit, and she agrees to replace the furnace and install smoke detectors by a certain date. What if she doesn’t? All bets are off, and the deal is cancelled. But what happens if the party to a covenant breaks one of its terms? What happens to the covenant at Sinai, for example, if the children of Israel no longer want to worship Adonai, and they decide instead to turn to a Golden Calf? Nothing. The covenant between God and Israel remains in force.

Simply put, you can walk away from a contract, but you cannot walk away from a covenant. That’s why, in this week’s Torah portion, we read God’s instruction to Moses, following the catastrophe of the Golden Calf: “Carve out two tablets of stone like the first, and I will inscribe on the tablets the commandments that were on the first tablets that you smashed.” (Deuteronomy 10:1-2) That’s why, according to tradition, the fragments of the shattered tablets were placed inside the ark alongside the whole ones. And that’s also why a Jew remains Jewish for the rest of her life, even if she converts out of Judaism. It’s like the proverbial hotel: “you can check in, but you can’t check out!”

Note that the concept of covenant entails forgiveness. When Israel sinned, God was determined to destroy them. (Deuteronomy 9:25) However, Moses reminded God that the covenant at Sinai precluded God’s wholesale rejection of them: “They are Your very own people, whom You freed… with Your outstretched arm.” (Deuteronomy 9:29) Every year on Kol Nidre, we intone liturgically God’s reply to Moses: salachti kidvarecha, “I have pardoned, according to your word.” (Numbers 14:20) At the outset of the Day of Atonement, we remind ourselves that if we turn to God in honest repentance, then God has no choice in the matter: God must forgive us.

So, too, in human interactions, if I am bound permanently in covenantal relationship to another, then I must forgive him if he disappoints me, if he acts differently from my expectations, and even if he fails to live up to his commitments. “Unlike a contract,” says Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, chief Rabbi of Great Britian, “a covenant is an open-ended relationship lived toward an unknown future. [Thus,] one of the loveliest lines in prophetic literature reads… ‘[Even when you transgress against me,] I will remember the covenantal loyalty of your youth, your love as a bride—how you followed me through the desert in an unsown land.’ (Jeremiah 2:2)” (To Heal a Fractured World, p. 45) A covenantal relationship is like that. It survives betrayal, because it is based upon something stronger—forgiveness.

I view the agreement between a congregation and its Rabbi not as a contract, but as a covenant. This means that we have agreed to join our separate destinies into a single journey that we will now travel together in an open-ended relationship toward an unknown future. It means that once bound, we will always be bound with each other—long after my current contract expires. Finally, it means that through all the disappointments and disagreements that will inevitably arise between us, we will not turn and run, we will remain in dialogue, and we will forgive each other. Remember: I’m not going anywhere, and neither are you. Let us embark on our new adventure together the same way we enter the New Year that is now approaching: with our hearts brimming with the spirit of hope, generosity, and forgiveness.