Which Covenant?

Alex Braver
May 3, 2013
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As I write this, my year studying in Israel is coming to a close, and as an American liberal Jew living in Jerusalem, I’m more confused about what “covenant” means than ever before.  Perhaps because, on my daily walk to school, I pass by dozens of people, each with entirely different notions of the same covenant!  I don’t ask each of them personally as I walk through the streets of Jerusalem early in the morning, but I can imagine some of the answers I would get if I did.  One might insist that the covenant is about a return to the Land, another that the covenant is in full and complete observance of ritual behaviors, a third that it is a covenant of ethical behavior, and still another might claim that it is mainly a covenant of peoplehood.  And that’s without even asking with whom this covenant is being formed!  With a God that intervenes in history?  With a universal spirit of ethical behavior?  With our fellow Jews?  Or just with ourselves?

Do we even have a covenant at all?  What are its terms and how is it active?  When I skip synagogue, have I violated the covenant?  When God allows an innocent child to die, has God violated the covenant?

 Though it’s not a complete answer, I find some comfort in thinking about the fact that there isn’t just a single covenant described in traditional Jewish sources.  There are covenants upon covenants, changing in meaning based upon their context, a dynamic process that describes the tumultuous and ever changing relationship between God and humanity in the Biblical account.  There is the ancestral covenant of progeny and land, the covenant of law and ritual, the covenant of kingship, and the covenant of return to Zion, among others, all of which are constantly in flux as God and the Biblical characters allow their relationship to develop.  These covenants are formed and reformed time and time again, from Abraham and Sarah to Moses and Aaron, from Joshua to David to the prophets.  The Jewish covenant is not static.

I’m not sure what our current covenant needs to look like, which parts are in trouble and which parts can be fixed.  I do believe, though, that we have a responsibility to deepen our commitments to it in its many possible forms.

As I think about returning back to the US and beginning to work with American Jews as a rabbinical student, I want to help people begin to put together the pieces of their own personal covenants with God.  The God of the Bible doesn’t rely on the promise made to the matriarchs and patriarchs in Genesis, but renews the covenant in different ways with each successive generation of Biblical characters. These covenants are relationships, and like all relationships they grow and change, they require trust and a serious investment of effort.  So too, our modern-day covenants require engagement and commitment in the form of learning, prayer, and acts of kindness.  They won’t last on the strength of a bat-mitzvah.  They must be constantly maintained and nurtured.

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Alex Braver is a rabbinic fellow at B'nai Jeshurun and a third-year rabbinical student at the Jewish Theological Seminary. He has also served as a student chaplain, studied at Yeshivat Hadar, and tutored remedial math and English at a charter school in Boston. He graduated from Brandeis University in 2009 with majors in history and politics.

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