I understand “covenant” as traditional Jewish language for interdependence, responsibility, and the fact that our actions have consequences. “Covenant” is a way of saying that our lives have meaning as we develop our capacity to care for one another and for the earth. A renewed sense of covenant may be an exit strategy from an over-individualistic and materialist culture. It may also be an antidote to despair and apathy.
In biblical times, Jews achieved purpose by joining together to actualize certain principles and ideals. They believed that those ideals and words came from the mouth or will of a divine being. But if we do not imagine such a divine being, what motivates our joining together? What inspires our commitment to one another’s care and the care of the earth we hold in common? What allows for the renunciation of personal comfort and private gratification that this necessarily entails? What is as powerful a motivation as the will of God?
There is a way to appreciate covenant and to apply the exigencies of this moment in history if one doesn’t believe in a supernatural God. Covenant is relationship. It is a recognition and acceptance of our mutuality and our interdependence. Entering into a covenant means we enter a relationship with another and from then on we realize that what we do has an impact on that other. We are not isolated individuals. We are agents of causes that can have wholesome or unwholesome consequences. Covenant lifts up the nature of our relationships. It calls us toward the intention of purifying the nature of our thoughts, words, and actions so that we might create less harm and more wellbeing in the world. Though our consumer culture often works against developing such relationships, they are central to Jewish values and law.
On a more global scale, contemporary physics, ecology, climate change, and advancing globalism support a notion of how we are deeply interconnected. Indeed, covenant, relationship, and consequence are the truth of our lives. The idea of a separate, autonomous self is more and more revealed as a delusion.
Still, how do we move from theory to practice? What will drive the effort? We may have hints in the word “chesed,” which has the connotation of covenantal love, the loving kindness that comes in a mutual, committed relationship. In biblical terms, this may be the divine protection and care humans receive or the caring we offer to those who are needy and troubled. In any case, covenant needs to be rooted in love. In spiritual practice, we bring honesty and compassion to the rising and passing of all sensations, thoughts, and feelings. We learn how to see through the deluded ideas and mind states that block our capacity to feel connected and to attend to the other and to ourselves. We grow in humility, generosity, and gratitude. We expand our ability to love another by loving ourselves.
What happens when this is difficult, when loving oneself eludes our ability, when we want to connect to “God,” but for one of a million human reasons we cannot? Here is my best answer: We try to bring compassion, presence, and patience to our sense of loss, to the disconnection, to the absence of love. We become present for each other in this way. We support those who need our courage or clarity when we can, knowing that a time may come when we will need that steadfast love and quiet attention.
Spiritual practice, be it meditation, prayer, Torah study, or other traditional mitzvot, is meant to align us with something greater than the fears and traumas that make us reactive and defensive. We engage in these practices in communities, such as minyanim, meditation groups, chevrutot, or study partnerships. The relationships we develop through these practices are based on a desire for connection, spiritual growth, and our ability to deeply listen to one another.
As we train in chesed within the context of community, we necessarily give up habits of selfishness, blame, and shame. We cultivate chesed toward community members, our family, friends, and ourselves. But this is not enough. We need to heed the urgency that bubbles up within and resounds in the tradition to love the stranger because we were strangers in the land of Egypt. We have to move outside what we know is our comfort zone. Chesed requires activism to create more just social structures. It requires tzedakah (charity) and sharing of resources. Love requires contemplating what we’ll leave as our legacy to the next generation.
We recognize that we are in a covenant. We are in a committed relationship with life itself. We are devoted to expanding this relationship. We see the consequences of greed and hatred. We are committed on the inside and the outside, on the psycho-spiritual level and the social-structural level to reduce suffering. That is our covenant.email print