Our covenantal relationship with God is characterized by a love laden with longing.
The brit, covenant, fundamentally weds God and Israel on the condition of Israel’s faith and adherence to the law and God’s fulfillment of Israel’s needs. But the brit also highlights the inherent distance between the lover and His beloved. Thus, the nature of our covenantal relationship raises a striking duality in which we long to draw close to God but are continually reminded of our distance from Him.
We see this tension play out through the exchanges found in the initial brit narrative and its fulfillment. When God first makes the brit with Avraham, God proclaims His love and commitment to Avraham’s progeny, the Jewish people. Through the promise of nationhood and homeland in the brit narrative, God sets the foundation for an enduring relationship based on the intimacy of commitment (Bereshit 15:5,18).
But in the same breath of promise and plenty, God underscores the struggle and work that the relationship will have to overcome saying, “Yadoa tedah ki ger yihyeh zaracha b’eretz lo lahem, vaavadum, v’inu otam arba meot shanah,” “Surely know that your descendents will be strangers in a land that is not theirs, and they will serve [the Egyptians], and [the Egyptians] will afflict them for four hundred years” (Bereshit 15:13).
In this covenantal moment filled with hope and promise, why does God mention our future struggles as a people?
Similarly, in the realization of this brit in Shemot, we see a parallel tension between Israel’s intimacy with and distance from God. Through the exodus from Egypt and the giving of the Torah at Sinai, God actualizes His proposal of commitment to the Israelites and creates an eternal marriage between Himself and His people.
But in our most intimate moment with God at the foot of Sinai, God warns us that we are not able to come too close to His mountain; and in response to Moshe’s request to see God’s glory, He adjures, “Lo tuchal lirot et panai, ki lo yirani ha’adam vachai,” “You are not able to see My face, for no man will see Me and live” (Shemot 33:20).
In such a paramount and vulnerable encounter between the lover and His beloved, why does God underscore our distance from Him? And more importantly, does the distance undermine the connection?
I believe that the answer to this tension within the brit narratives springs from the longing inherent in a relationship between the finite and the Infinite. God knows very well the inevitable struggles and distance that we will experience as fallible, finite beings. This longing between the Creator and His creations, however, does not preclude covenantal love.
The Vilna Gaon on Parshat Lech Lecha explains the brit through the language of love:
“Someone who loves another with all his heart, whom he wants not to leave him, but it is impossible for them to actually be together, gives his beloved friend something in which he has invested all his longing and desire, and they are connected by means of that gift. And even though the giver is separated from his gift, all his thoughts are centered in it. And that is the meaning of “Brit;” that is to say, a ‘Promise,’ that through the existence of the gift of the Torah, God will never separate Himself from His beloved friend, Israel.”
According to the Vilna Gaon, the brit responds to the reality of distance between the lovers and actually allows them closeness in yearning through the articulation of commitment. The impossibility of complete connection creates a longing that pulses through every heartbeat of the human experience—it is the pain, questioning, sorrow, yearning, and rawness of our natural fragility. In the love story of God and Israel, this longing results in the beauty of the brit in its many forms: nationhood, homeland, Torah, and the eternal process of drawing close to God Himself. But it also plays out in chorban bayit, the destruction of the Temples and the seeming loss of God’s apparent wonders in our daily lives. The relationship between the love and the distance constitutes the brit.
How can we make meaning of this yearning, this distance?
The brit most practically plays out in our lives today in the form of brit milah, circumcision. In the parshiyot of Tazria-Metzorah, we learn that when a woman gives birth to a baby boy, she waits seven days and then, “uvayom hashmini,” on the eighth day, the baby is circumcised (Vayikra 12:3). The remainder of Tazria-Metzorah outlines the steps for reintroduction into the camp for a person with tzaraat, leprosy, a zav, a man with a discharge, a zavah, a woman with a discharge, and a niddah, a woman who is menstruating. At the end of each case, just like the newborn baby boy, the man or woman waits seven days and on the eighth day he or she offers the final sacrifice and reenters the community. The secret of the eighth day lies in its ability to bring both a newborn baby boy and any person who has become ritually unclean into the Jewish community.
I believe the parallel between brit milah and the process of becoming ritually pure teaches us how to make meaning in the midst of longing. God knows the inevitable distance we feel from Him, but He responds with an unending longing to be close to us. God has His Temple built in a world that contains tuma, ritual impurity. God enters into relationship with a nation that is flawed, scared, and often wayward. He continually forgives and offers us the ability to do teshuvah, knowing that certain levels of growth may take a lifetime or worse, may never come about. Nevertheless, God longs for His beloved people Israel. God continues to create life and gives us the opportunity to reenter His camp. Essentially, God takes the leap to say ‘I love you’ over and over again. This is the meaning of our distance.
In Parshat Emor, Rashi comments on the word ‘Atzeret’ concerning the eighth day of Sukkot, Shemini Atzeret. He writes,
“‘I have detained you [to remain] with Me.’ This is analogous to a king who invited his sons to feast with him for a certain number of days, and when the time came for them to leave, he said ‘My sons! Please, stay with me just one more day, for it is difficult for me to part with you!’” (Vayikra 23:36).
In this context, the eighth day is one of longing. God simply wants one more day with His beloved. We learn that the eighth day, whether for brit milah, ritual purity, or Atzeret, provides us with an opportunity to embrace the longing between lovers while cleaving to our precious moments together. It is a chance to reenter into our relationship with God and to respond to the yearning inherent in our finite nature with an abundant closeness, a brit of eternity. May we each merit to open our hearts to a holy longing that draws us closer to our Creator and sheds meaning on our moments of distance and closeness.