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Jul 25th
Home Columns View from Denver ‘Covenant’ — the foundation of Jewish theology

‘Covenant’ — the foundation of Jewish theology

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IF one had to sum up Jewish theology in a single word, it would be covenant.

This is grasped instinctively. When Jewish German immigrants on the Lower East Side of New York established a Jewish fraternal and service organization 171 years ago, they choose the name B’nai B’rith, “Sons of the Covenant.”

The bris (“covenant”), that is, circumcision, is one of the three most observed Jewish rituals (the other two being Passover and Yom Kippur).

The meaning of covenant, as one would expect, runs up and down the Torah. But more than its meaning, covenant is an expectation. The dynamic of covenant is built into the Jewish psyche. A covenant is a two-sided agreement, and Jews naturally expect that G-d will live up to His side.

Jews ask why the righteous suffer — as if it were self-evident that they shouldn’t. There is no basis for defending the righteous other than covenant: the idea that if I do the right thing, then G-d will do right by me.

That is not a universal concept. It is a deeply Jewish one — the two-sided dynamic of covenant.

Jews live and embody this reciprocal dynamic naturally, subliminally, totally. It often does not dawn on Jews that other religions do not look at G-d this way.

But Judaism does — by G-d’s own initiative.

Covenant of creation

THE first major instance of covenant in the Torah is implicit — the act of creation itself. Creation implies the dynamic of covenant, overwhelmingly so.

Why should G-d, who is without limit and without need, create the universe, and specifically the human being (and, for all we know, other rational creatures in unknown corners of the universe)?

G-d’s very creation of the human being implies extreme caring on  G-d’s part. Reciprocally, G-d’s created human beings respond with gratitude for G-d’s ultimate beneficence.

Explicitly, the first appearance of covenant in the Torah is in Genesis 9:9-17: the universal covenant with Noah never again to destroy humanity. This covenant, symbolized by the rainbow, is an exception to the fundamental biblical theme of the reciprocal covenant, as the Noahitic covenant is a one-sided promise from G-d, with no expectation of humanity in return.

Explicitly, the first appearance of the reciprocal covenant in the Torah is in Genesis 15:7-21: the “covenant between the pieces” (Torah portion Lech Lecha).

With this covenant, G-d promises Abram and his descendants the Land of Israel.

Abraham asks for proof, and G-d tells Abram to take three calves, three goats, three rams, a turtledove and a young dove, to cut them in the center, and to place each piece opposite its counterpart.

Abraham does so, except for the birds, which he did not cut.

G-d speaks to Abram, telling him that his descendants will be enslaved in an alien land, but will leave with great wealth.

Then a great darkness falls and a torch of fire passes between the pieces. “On that day the L-rd made a covenant with Abram, saying, ‘To your descendants have I given this land’ . . . ”

Elsewhere in the Torah G-d makes it clear that the gift of the land is contingent upon Abram’s descendants guarding the land against injustice and impurity. Again, the two-sided dynamic of covenant.

Covenant of Sabbath

SKIP to Exodus 31:12-17: the covenant of Shabbos (Torah portion Ki Tisa).

The commandment to keep the Sabbath appears in many Biblical passages, most famously in the Ten Commandments: “Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy” and “Guard the Sabbath day to keep it holy” (Exod. 20:8, Deut. 5:12, respectively).

In Exodus 31:12-17, the Sabbath is first called a “sign” and “holy,” then a “covenant”; in fact, “an eternal covenant between Me and between the children of Israel, a sign forever that in six days G-d made the Heavens and the earth, and on the seventh day He rested, and was refreshed.”

Shabbos has many levels of meaning. Stressed in this passage is the covenantal dynamic: a person, in refraining from 39 categories of work on the Sabbath, acknowledges his createdness by G-d and his corollary obligation to be grateful for  G-d’s creative beneficence.

Perhaps even more basically, the Sabbath, as a sign of G-d’s act of creation, beckons the human being to be conscious of G-d, at least once a week, on the Sabbath.

Again, the reciprocal dynamic of covenant: G-d gives us life; we are conscious of and grateful for that.

SKIP to Leviticus 24:8 in this week’s Torah portion, Emor.

In the ancient Tabernacle, the first national Jewish house of worship, and later in the Holy Temples in Jerusalem, twelve loaves were stationed on a piece of holy furniture, the “Pure Table” (made of pure gold; Exod. 25:24-25).

These dozen loaves were placed in two stacks of six, with pure frankincense placed upon each stack.

This “remembrance bread” was a continual reminder. While the priests in the Tabernacle (and later the Temple) ate these loaves each Shabbos, replacements were baked the day before, each Friday. As one set was eaten, another set was already in place.

But what did these ever evident loaves continually remind us of?

This continual reminder was deemed a “fire-offering,” apparently because the bread was baked; but of more relevance to our theme, the bread was deemed “an eternal covenant.” If the Sabbath itself was already deemed an eternal covenant, why was there a need for another covenant associated with the Sabbath? The meaning emphasized here, writes Netziv (1816-1892), is that refraining from work one day a week does not diminish one’s bread, one’s livelihood.

Quite the contrary.

These loaves miraculously never spoiled; they stayed fresh the entire week long. They continually remind us that Shabbos is the source of livelihood, of blessing, for the entire week.

If, back in Exodus, the Sabbath is called an “eternal covenant,” stressing the human being’s constant obligation to be grateful for G-d’s beneficence in creating him, here in Leviticus the stress is on the continual caring of G-d. He guarantees a livelihood in return for cessation from pursuing it on the Sabbath — for spending one day a week taking pleasure in the Divine Presence.

Again, the two-sided, reciprocal dynamic of covenant.

The covenantal dynamic

SKIP to Deuteronomy, especially the Torah portion that is saturated with the idea of covenant.

In Ki Tavo, the ancient Israelite community is divided in two, six tribes standing on Mount Gerizim and six tribes on Mount Ebal.

To one mountain, G-d’s curses are directed; to the other, G-d’s blessings.

“Accursed is the man who will make a graven or molten image, an abomination of the L-rd . . . ” the curses begin (Deut. 27:15).

The list is long.

Then, the blessings.

“Blessed shall you be in the city and blessed shall you be in the field” (Deut. 28:3). Why? “It shall be that if you hearken to the voice of the L-rd your G-d, to observe, to perform all of His commandments that I command you this day, then the L-rd your G-d will place you above all the nations of the earth.”

The covenantal dynamic.

In Deut. 28:69, G-d concludes this covenant, after laying out most clearly and, indeed, frighteningly, the consequences of failing to live up to the covenant.

And so it goes, back and forth. G-d’s expectation. Man’s expectation. G-d’s commandments. Man’s responsibilities. An interactive theology. A dynamic relationship. A mutuality. An unending, eternal destiny.

A covenant.

Copyright © 2014 by the Intermountain Jewish News


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