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Parshat Lech-lecha: On Covenant, Crisis and Commitment

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לזכות רפואה שלימה לאימי מורתי מינדל ליבא בת פיגא פרל בתוך שאר חולי ישראל

In the merit of a complete recovery of my dear Mother and teacher Mindel Liba Bat Fayga Perl

Whenever I teach Torah I always begin by emphasizing the idea of Torat Chayim – The Living Torah – this ancient text that lives and breathes its relevance to every time and age and every individual person.  I identify strongly with the doctrine of the Rabbis who see Torah learning as a covenantal act between humans and God, one in which humankind hears the word of God in every generation and at every time.  For the last week I have been sitting with my dear mother in the ICU after she has had complications following a bone marrow transplant.  I have had little time for much more than thinking and reflecting on what I have seen and experienced by her bedside. In the model of Torat Chayim my thoughts have led me to a tapestry of interconnection between Torah ideas and my given reality.

In last week’s Parsha, we read about the very first covenant made between God and humankind. In this week’s Parsha we read about a covenant made between a particular individual relating to a particular nation and God.   Covenant is a specific type of agreement, unlike the ancient concept of covenant found in the vassal treaties, the paradigm of covenant we find in the Bible are not related to an imperial overlord grounding his authority through a transient agreement with the indigenous people. [1] The biblical concept of covenant was grounded on a deep religious and moral commitment.  In parshat Noach it is not the people who must limit themselves but God Himself.  Rather than exhort promises from mankind, God in a unilateral move makes a promise to mankind, that he will never destroy the world again.  This is a radical idea, a Divine all powerful ruler is self-limiting for the sake of mankind.  He creates a sign for this promise – the rainbow in the cloud, and ties himself to His own vow through a ‘reminder’ to Himself, that when the ‘sign’ is shown, he will remember that he must not destroy His creatures again. The sign of the bow, usually an instrument of war is turned upside down by God to become a sign of peace. The very apparatus used by Man to destroy one another, is used by God to remind Himself and as a result humankind, that they must respect each other’s differences. The rainbow, each with its unique colour comes together in a refraction of light to represent God’s covenantal promise to mankind, that neither Divine vengeance nor Human violence should be the cause of the demise of civilization.  The Noachide Covenant is a universal covenant with a universal message.  We must be reminded of the separate colours standing in unity without losing their individuality.

The idea of covenant – brit, is of fundamental significance in the Tanach and is one of the central pillars of the Judaic tradition. In our Parsha, Lech-lecha, God chooses a specific partner Avraham with whom he enters into a mutual Covenant of parts, each bound by specific commitments and promises.  We should not underestimate the fundamental paradigm shift this has on humanity as a whole following its biblical origins.  For the first time in ancient history the greater Power commits to self-limit for the sake of the lesser power.  Rather than curbing the individual freedom of the lesser partner, brit enhances and mandates individual autonomy in order to work together with their Divine partner in perfecting creation.  In the introduction to his new and important work on Pirkei Avot, Rabbi Yitz Greenberg reflects on the idea of the Brit. He writes:

“The covenant represents a divine pledge that the intended outcome of history i.e. the earth redeemed will not be imposed by divine decree.  God thus commits to respecting human freedom; humanity can accept not to accept the brit, thereby working on the side of death and against the goals of Creation.  But by entering into covenant, God and humanity elect to work together, at human pace and capacity, for as long as it takes to achieve perfection.”

When God makes a covenant with Avraham in this week’s Parsha he does so in two ways. The first is the covenant of parts – Brit Ben Habatarim, the second is circumcision – Brit Milah. Both consist of a type of cutting, the ancient sign of a pact between parts. However unlike the unilateral covenant found in last week’s reading, this covenant requires action on the part of Avraham. He is an active partner in the contract, enacting through the cutting of the animals and the cutting of skin his role in the pact.  Through Brit Milah we recognise the role we must play in perfecting an imperfect realty.  As Leon Kass poignantly describes:

“Covenantal circumcision emphasizes and sanctifies man’s natural generative power, even as it also restricts and transcends it.  To be performed on children only eight days old, it celebrates not sexual potency but procreation and (especially) perpetuation.  Though it is the child who bears the mark, the obligation falls rather on the parents; it is the perfect symbol of the relation between the generations, for the deeds of the parents is always inscribed, often heritably, into the lives of the children”.

Brit Milah underlies our commitment to national survival. We extend to our children the sign of the covenant, imparting our wish for them to be a mutual partner in this unique community of individuals. A community whose essence is a pledge to a system of ethics and sanctity, not through coercion but through consent, not through force but through choice.  We pray when our eight day old baby enters the brit, they will grow up to appreciate and value and thus also commit to its perpetuation.

Covenant is unlike any other agreement or treatise. When God talks to the people throughput Tanach he does not command (the word לציית to command actually appears very little in Tanach) rather the word most often used is לדבר to speak. Speech is softer, gentle, and respectful.  It reflects a mature relationship, one in which the two parties are able to communicate at a deeper level, explaining, elucidating and thus understanding the other.  As a response to the speech the people listen -שמוע וישמע. Unfortunately the word shamoa has been mistranslated as to obey, when in fact it means to hear/hearken. The difference between the two is telling. To obey is robotic, harsh, detached. To listen is human, soft, intelligent and present. To hearken rather than obey requires a process. One must listen intently, understand intelligently and then choose willingly to act. Obey means to submit to a superior authority, to hearken involves a choice.  The relationship between man and God is a listening, hearing, intimate conversation between humankind and their creator imbued with love, freedom and an engulfing sense of responsibility one to the other.

There are things ideas in this week’s Parsha that speak brit better to us than any doctrine. They are found in the famous narrative of the brit ben habetarim.  The first is memory and shared experiences which lead to mutual respect and liberty for each partner of the covenant. The second is trust and living with uncertainty. The third is hope.

In order to understand these ideas I will bring the text of the Brit ben habatrim:

ה וַיּוֹצֵא אֹתוֹ הַחוּצָה, וַיֹּאמֶר הַבֶּט-נָא הַשָּׁמַיְמָה וּסְפֹר הַכּוֹכָבִים–אִם-תּוּכַל, לִסְפֹּר אֹתָם; וַיֹּאמֶר לוֹ, כֹּה יִהְיֶה זַרְעֶךָ.  ו וְהֶאֱמִן, בַּיהוָה; וַיַּחְשְׁבֶהָ לּוֹ, צְדָקָה.  ז וַיֹּאמֶר, אֵלָיו:  אֲנִי יְהוָה, אֲשֶׁר הוֹצֵאתִיךָ מֵאוּר כַּשְׂדִּים–לָתֶת לְךָ אֶת-הָאָרֶץ הַזֹּאת, לְרִשְׁתָּהּ.  ח וַיֹּאמַר:  אֲדֹנָי יְהוִה, בַּמָּה אֵדַע כִּי אִירָשֶׁנָּה.  ט וַיֹּאמֶר אֵלָיו, קְחָה לִי עֶגְלָה מְשֻׁלֶּשֶׁת, וְעֵז מְשֻׁלֶּשֶׁת, וְאַיִל מְשֻׁלָּשׁ; וְתֹר, וְגוֹזָל.  י וַיִּקַּח-לוֹ אֶת-כָּל-אֵלֶּה, וַיְבַתֵּר אֹתָם בַּתָּוֶךְ, וַיִּתֵּן אִישׁ-בִּתְרוֹ, לִקְרַאת רֵעֵהוּ; וְאֶת-הַצִּפֹּר, לֹא בָתָר.  יא וַיֵּרֶד הָעַיִט, עַל-הַפְּגָרִים; וַיַּשֵּׁב אֹתָם, אַבְרָם.  יב וַיְהִי הַשֶּׁמֶשׁ לָבוֹא, וְתַרְדֵּמָה נָפְלָה עַל-אַבְרָם; וְהִנֵּה אֵימָה חֲשֵׁכָה גְדֹלָה, נֹפֶלֶת עָלָיו.  יג וַיֹּאמֶר לְאַבְרָם, יָדֹעַ תֵּדַע כִּי-גֵר יִהְיֶה זַרְעֲךָ בְּאֶרֶץ לֹא לָהֶם, וַעֲבָדוּם, וְעִנּוּ אֹתָם–אַרְבַּע מֵאוֹת, שָׁנָה.  יד וְגַם אֶת-הַגּוֹי אֲשֶׁר יַעֲבֹדוּ, דָּן אָנֹכִי; וְאַחֲרֵי-כֵן יֵצְאוּ, בִּרְכֻשׁ גָּדוֹל.  טו וְאַתָּה תָּבוֹא אֶל-אֲבֹתֶיךָ, בְּשָׁלוֹם:  תִּקָּבֵר, בְּשֵׂיבָה טוֹבָה.  טז וְדוֹר רְבִיעִי, יָשׁוּבוּ הֵנָּה:  כִּי לֹא-שָׁלֵם עֲו‍ֹן הָאֱמֹרִי, עַד-הֵנָּה.  יז וַיְהִי הַשֶּׁמֶשׁ בָּאָה, וַעֲלָטָה הָיָה; וְהִנֵּה תַנּוּר עָשָׁן, וְלַפִּיד אֵשׁ, אֲשֶׁר עָבַר, בֵּין הַגְּזָרִים הָאֵלֶּה.  יח בַּיּוֹם הַהוּא, כָּרַת יְהוָה אֶת-אַבְרָם–בְּרִית לֵאמֹר:  לְזַרְעֲךָ, נָתַתִּי אֶת-הָאָרֶץ הַזֹּאת, מִנְּהַר מִצְרַיִם, עַד-הַנָּהָר הַגָּדֹל נְהַר-פְּרָת

And He took him outside, and He said, “Please look heavenward and count the stars, if you are able to count them.” And He said to him, “So will be your seed.” 6And he believed in the Lord, and He accounted it to him as righteousness. 7And He said to him, “I am the Lord, Who brought you forth from Ur of the Chaldees, to give you this land to inherit it.” 8And he said, “O Lord God, how will I know that I will inherit it?” 9And He said to him, “Take for Me three heifers and three goats and three rams, and a turtle dove and a young bird.” 10And he took for Him all these, and he divided them in the middle, and he placed each part opposite its mate, but he did not divide the birds. 11And the birds of prey descended upon the carcasses, and Abram drove them away. 12Now the sun was ready to set, and a deep sleep fell upon Abram, and behold, a fright, a great darkness was falling upon him. 13And He said to Abram, “You shall surely know that your seed will be strangers in a land that is not theirs, and they will enslave them and oppress them, for four hundred years. 14And also the nation that they will serve will I judge, and afterwards they will go forth with great possessions. 15But you will come to your forefathers in peace; you will be buried in a good old age.16And the fourth generation will return here, for the iniquity of the Amorites will not be complete until then. 17Now it came to pass that the sun had set, and it was dark, and behold, a smoking furnace and a fire brand, which passed between these parts. 18On that day, the Lord formed a covenant with Abram, saying, “To your seed I have given this land, from the river of Egypt until the great river, the Euphrates river

The first thing God does is to take Avraham ‘outside’. In order to affirm our faith and create a true relationship we must step outside of ourselves to make space to see the other.  If we are prisoners to the narrow confines of our own self perspective and servitude we will never be able to see the bigger picture.  When God speaks to Avraham he does so as a partner reminding him of shared moments and experiences as well as future dreams and promises. ‘I am the God who took you out from Ur Casdim to give you the Promised Land’.  Our relationship is one of shared commitment and promises.

The second motif, trust and living with uncertainty can be discerned through the question Avraham asks God ‘במה אדע – how will I know’? The motif of knowing and not knowing begins with Adam and Chava eating from עץ הדעת the tree of knowledge, in the Garden of Eden. Epistemology (the theory of knowledge) originates with creation of humankind. As an intelligent species we crave knowledge and certainty. We use all our resources to discover and advance our understanding our environment and existence. However as we discover in Gan Eden and throughout the history of humanity, our mortal nature means we are naturally limited.  Living in a certain time and space means we can never know everything, we cannot possibly know what it was to live a hundred years ago or in a hundred years to come. We accept that there are things that are beyond our grasp of the present. Death perhaps is the greatest obstacle to our giddy feelings of invincibility.[2]   Covenant addresses this tension. When Avraham asks for certainty and knowledge that he will inherit or in other words there will be a happy ever after, Gods response is a lesson in covenantal living.   The strange imagery of cutting animals, fiery torches, sunset and darkness; tales of exile and promises of redemption and inheritance has a kind of elusive feel to it. Though there is a promise of protection and inheritance, there is also a mysterious and enigmatic quality to the whole episode.  Covenant, like marriage or any authentic relationship is not predictable or assured.  When one enters into covenantal space, in many ways one has to give up illusions of certitude to allow for transformation and growth. There exists the possibility of rupture (represented by the cutting of the animals) as well as times of hope and darkness (represented in the imagery of darkness and promise throughout the narrative).  But if each side of the covenant can make space for the other, relate to the other as רעהו a friend[3] and partner, covenantal living makes for an intensely meaningful experience.

The final message of this narrative finds its home in the promises of a happy ending, though the exact journey to that moment is never explicitly spelled out. In many other religions their Messiah has come, in ours, he is always coming. The eschatological vision of Judaism frames our entire psyche. We are waiting for the Moshiach to initiate world peace, and an idyllic existence. We know there is a happy ending, we just don’t know when or how.  Brit – Covenantal living teaches us that it is not through passive waiting and blind faith that this happy ending will transpire, rather hope as a harbinger of action

Only when we understand the true meaning of brit do so many other elements of our faith make sense.

Over the last few months I have had a strange epiphany.  People always talk about health being the most important priority. As long as we are healthy everything else is irrelevant. Whilst of course I identify with this sentiment, especially in light of illness and suffering, I believe there is something more important than health and I call this covenantal living.  In an article I read recently in the Times newspaper,  the writer reflects on the increase in life choices to live alone, eat alone and travel alone, choosing self-growth and indulgent narcissism over family life or socially responsible living.  It observed an hundred percent increase over the last five years of single accommodation living, solitary tables at restaurant, single ticket holiday packages. Watching a man die opposite us in the ICU, leaving no one but his wife, no family, no community, no friends to support them or see them through a most tragic experience, confirmed to me the epiphany I had been nursing. Life means nothing without real true covenantal relationships. The overwhelming outpouring of support, love and prayer for my mother over the last few months has literally carried us.  It has given us strength that only the experience of being enveloped by a community of friends and family can provide.  It gives life meaning and illness a strange redemptive quality.[4]  It makes hope possible even in moments of rupture and crisis.  When God made his Brit with Avraham thousands of years ago, He bestowed on all future generations a gift whose worth is beyond rubies and diamonds, an immeasurable gift of covenantal community.  As I said at the start, this ancient text has the power to speak to every situation and every generation. Avraham’s entering into covenantal living has made possible the immeasurable kindness and empathy that only community and faith can provide.

On Friday night I sang to my mother  the beautiful poem ידיד נפש. Though I have maybe sung it a thousand times before, the words suddenly took on a whole new dimension in light of this deeper understanding of Brit. Lyrics that speak of passion and love better than any love song I know.  It is an unadulterated dialogue between two individuals and as I sang the words they spoke to me so clearly – though the intent of thw ords are about healing the aching soul one has for God , they echoed my own intense prayers – אנא אל נא רפא נא לה Please God heal her now…then she will be strengthened and healed and eternal joy will be hers.

Prayer only makes sense through covenant, how can we sing those intimate lyrics to a coercive intimidating power that demands our servitude? We can’t, prayer would be impossible.  The intimacy of covenantal living means that prayer is possible even when we may not always hear or see the answers. We can strive for future redemption knowing that rupture, crisis and doubt are all part of the long road ahead.  The fiery torches of hope that walk through the sometimes fragmented covenant will always triumph, because that is Gods promise to us, and perhaps more importantly our promise to Him – not to despair despite the prevailing darkness. Imbued with every aspect of humanity but equally Divine grace and certitude Brit makes living as part of this astonishing nation incredibly complex but also exquisitely profound.

[1] For a thorough discussion about the differences between the ancient idea of covenant and the Biblical idea see Daniel Elazar: Covenant and Polity in Biblical Israel

[2] Thus it is no surprise that after eating from the tree of knowledge Adam and Chava become mortal since mortality naturally limits our knowledge so that we cannot be as the serpent promises we will be ‘Like God knowing good and evil’. With the ‘curse’ of death and banishment from Eden comes the relative and limited nature of knowledge. For a more detailed discussion see

[3] It is fascinating to me that the animals are placed facing each other using the words לקראת רעהו.  This is surely strange language for describing cut animals.  I believe it is symptomatic of the feel of the entire episode.  Description of the Covenantal ceremony is littered with imagery and language of friendship and intimacy – a true face to face encounter between partners.

[4] I want to make clear that I am not stating here any kind of theodicy.  I do not believe that illness, suffering and tragedy can be theologically explained or justified in anyway – to me that is simply apologetics. However I do believe that in some limited way suffering can have redemptive qualities.  None of us choses illness or suffering, it is cast upon us, a testament to the limited control we have over our destiny. Yet as Rav Soloveitchik from the religious perspective and Victor Frankel from the psychological perspective both attest, it is the way we chose to react and respond to that suffering that will either redeem us from its grip or make us partners in our own demise.

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