Covenant – A Weekly Letter by Rabbi Davis – February 14, 2020
We are familiar with a bris, a ceremony when a baby boy is circumcised. We probably have heard of the organization B’nai Brith that spawned Hillel, BBYO, and the ADL. And maybe we know the term Luchot Habrit, the Tablets of the Law that Moshe received on Sinai.
Common to all of these phrases is brit, covenant. What really is a covenant?
A covenant is a sacred agreement. When a bride says under the chuppa, “I am my beloved and my beloved is mine,” she is pledging to be there for her spouse just as her spouse commits to being there for her. At a wedding, a couple enters a covenant before witnesses to love, honor and support each other.
In this week’s Torah reading, God and the Jewish people establish a covenant at Mt Sinai. God says, “If you faithfully keep My covenant, you shall be My treasured people.” Notice, the covenant is established not because of who the people are but because of what they pledge to do. That is to say, the Jewish people are not inherently special. It is our behaviors that affirm the covenant. “Everything you have said, we with faithfully do,” they say to God enthusiastically.
The commentary in our chumashim explains that the term brit has three meanings: a promise, a stipulation, a compact. When I make a promise, I impose on myself an obligation. A stipulation places an obligation on someone else. A compact is a reciprocal obligation accepted by two parties.
At Sinai we have all three. The Israelites made a promise to God. God gave the Israelites rules to follow, duties to fulfill. And together, they pledged allegiance one to another. This is the only recorded revelation not to a prophet but to an entire people. Significantly, the covenant was made with each person individually as part of a community. Each person mattered. Each had a role to play to make the collective more than the sum of its parts. No mere aggregate of individuals, at Sinai, we were welded together as a people.
Before we had a land, before we had a king, we met God in the desert and were charged with being “a kingdom of priests, a holy nation.” Rabbi Jonathan Sacks explains: “with the possible exception of the United States, the Jewish people is the only nation ever to have had a mission statement. Most [nations] are defined in terms of language, geography, political structure, long association and the like. Jews became a nation by adopting a task, by covenanting with God. Absent that, and it is hard to say what it is to be a Jew” (Covenant & Conversation, p. 131-132).
Covenant is at the very heart of what it means to be a Jew. We are duty bound to each other, partners with God, striving to bring holiness to the world.
Rabbi Alexander Davis
I shared this dvar Torah at this week’s board meeting in which we discussed Beth El’s new strategic plan defining our mission, vision and three-year goals.